I'm keeping an eye on 115F temperatures across Texas, with heat indices up around 125F, which I can't even comprehend. Dangerous temperatures, even for people living in the south who have become acclimated to extreme heat their entire lives. When it's that hot out, the risk of heat exhaustion and sometimes fatal heat stroke is very high.
Which got me thinking: is it easier to survive extreme heat or extreme cold? Intuitively it makes sense that the correct answer is "extreme cold". You can always put on a few more layers of clothing, but there are so many layers you can take off on a hot day before the police show up. But the scientifically-sound answer to that vexing question is not at all clear-cut.
According to NOAA, heat is the biggest killer on a regular basis, and 2021 was Exhibit A, with 375 deaths, compared with 40 winter related fatalities. Over the last 30 years NOAA claims that heat has claimed 4-5 times more lives in the US than extreme cold.
But CDC, The Centers for Disease Control, have data showing that cold is the biggest killer over time, which is confusing, even for meteorologists paid to analyze and communicate the data and trends. One thing is certain: weather extremes are on the rise. According to the National Safety Council: "Over the last five years, weather-related deaths are up 35% from 2017, while the number of weather events have increased 7% and injuries have decreased 15%."
So what poses the greatest threat, heat or cold? WCCO-TV did an interview with Dr. Thomas Hellmich, an emergency room physician at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital. His answer: "In general, you tolerate better extremes in cold. Your core temperature can tolerate going down more than going up." Hellmich said he sees more children in the hospital with problems related to high temperatures than he does in the extreme cold.
My take-away: extreme heat and cold are both dangerous, but geography plays a big role too. If you live in Laredo, Texas you are much more acclimated to extreme heat that someone who lives in Superior, Wisconsin. Here in the Northland we have a tolerance for cold that people in Houston or Atlanta simply don't have. That's part of the equation.
Either extreme can get you into trouble, but slapping on more clothes during an arctic cold wave seems more straightforward than staying home because it's too hot outside.
Of course, Lake Superior acts as the ultimate atmospheric shock absorber, preventing us from experiencing the same level and duration of heat as the Twin Cities or Madison. We get a taste of dangerous heat from time to time, but the lake helps us keep our collective cool most summers.
With a developing El Nino maybe we won't have to grapple with any crazy extreme this year? Maybe I'm dreaming....