A heatwave hits the worldLEE KYONG-HEE
The author is the head of the Innovation Lab of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A heatwave refers to the natural disaster of abnormally high temperatures causing damage to life and property. The standard for a heatwave varies from country to country. In Korea, a heatwave advisory is issued when the feels-like temperature is expected to exceed 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) for two consecutive days or more.
On June 19, this year’s first heatwave advisory was issued in Daegu, most areas of Gwangju and North Gyeongsang, and some areas of South Gyeongsang and South Jeolla. That’s three weeks earlier than last year’s first warning.
An early heatwave is hitting central and western Europe and the United States, too. Last weekend, the highest temperature in Pissos in southwestern France reached 43.4 degrees Celsius. In the United States, a heat advisory was issued in dozens of states due to the heat dome. A heat dome is the phenomenon of hot air being trapped under a high pressure atmosphere.
Heatwaves affect all corners of society. Produce and crops dry up, livestock and fish die and prices rise. A power shortage cannot be avoided. What’s most frightening is the loss of lives. Heatwaves are the biggest cause of death among natural disasters in Korea.
In the summer of 2018, during a record-breaking heatwave in Korea, 145 people died from heat-related diseases. The casualty is even greater considering the “excess deaths” indirectly caused by excessive heat. Excessive heat has various effects on human organs including the brain, heart, kidneys and cardiovascular system. A 2020 study estimates that the 2018 heatwave caused 929 excess deaths in Korea.
As with all disasters, heatwaves attack the weakest link. According to the 2020 Heatwave Impact Report by the Korea Environmental Institute, 24 percent of the patients of heat-related illnesses were 70 or older. 73 percent of the heat-related diseases occurred outdoors, 28.1 percent in outdoor workplaces, and 11.2 percent in the fields. 28.7 out of 10,000 workers working outdoors suffered from heat-related illnesses — 8.2 times more likely than the 3.5 of other occupations. The difference was evident according to incomes. 21.2 out of 10,000 people in the low-income group suffered from heat-related illnesses, while the first quintile showed only 4.8 suffered. Workplaces and housing environments where people cannot avoid the heat threaten their health. Detailed measures should be planned with the characteristics of the vulnerable groups in mind.