Summer with Occasional Heat Waves Gives Way to ‘Heat Season’


By Gregory DL Morris

There are numerous local resources for coping with the heat

It’s not [just] a heat wave: the blistering heat and enveloping humidity around the Southeast and beyond this summer isn’t a brief bit of sweaty misery to be tolerated. It’s a full heat season now – long and dangerous and needing year-round attention, according to medical specialists at Duke University.

“It is difficult to capture the public’s attention around heat with comparison to other natural disasters,” said Ashley Ward, director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability. Heat doesn’t typically provide the “camera-ready images that really motivates people to [act] like we see with hurricanes or tornadoes or other severe weather,” she noted.

“But this year Mother Nature has shown us in quite spectacular fashion — through marine heat waves that have sent thousands of dying fish on the shores, particularly on Gulf Coast states, and bleaching our coral reefs. News reports of hikers succumbing to the heat, burn units being filled in places like Arizona with people experiencing critical and sometimes deadly burns from contact with pavement and other sort of structures in our environment.”

Of particular concern, Ward noted that “we’re seeing nearly 30 days of triple-digit temperatures, breaking records of daytime temperatures, but also breaking records of overnight temperatures.” That lack of nighttime respite is exhausting to humans and other animals, as well as the electrical grid and other infrastructure.

“At 30 days we’re not talking about a heat wave anymore,” Ward stated. “We’re talking about a season. We’re talking about a marker, a shift. This is not an acute event. Typically you think about a three to five-day event. We’re talking about a new chronic state of being for heat season. It isn’t unreasonable to think this could quite possibly be the coolest heat season of our lives.”

Noting that the national reporting on heat tends to focus on the urban heat-island effect, Ward noted that “in North Carolina and in much of the Southeast rural heat vulnerability is a significant issue, and it’s not only about farm workers. In North Carolina and throughout the Southeast, for example, manufacturing is located in rural areas. It is not unusual to have indoor manufacturing temperatures to exceed 90 degrees during the day, with populations that live in either energy-inefficient housing or do not have access to adequate or any cooling in their homes.”

She added that there are no federal requirements for nursing homes and long-care facilities to have air conditioning, though many states do.

“Our partners within Orange County lead a centralized effort to open and operate cooling centers during excessive heat,” said Alex Carrasquillo, public information officer for the Chapel Hill police and fire departments.

“That effort includes transportation to cooling centers when they’re open,” Carrasquillo said. “For example, when we were under a heat advisory recently, Orange County Mobility on Demand (MOD) provided service to cooling centers – the closest being the Rogers Road Community Center.”

He added that “in recent weeks, our fire department has been working to educate community members about the dangers of hot cars. We also work to consistently share heat safety tips.”

The town’s Emergency webpage has these links:

Extreme Heat |

Heat Safety Tips and Resources (

Extreme Heat | Natural Disasters and Severe Weather | CDC

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness | Natural Disasters and Severe Weather | CDC

Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness | Natural Disasters and Severe Weather | CDC.

The Carrboro town website also has an extensive array of links for extreme heat information and resources in both towns, Orange County and nationally. For local emergency resources, visit

Orange County has compiled a list of resources available for individuals and families experiencing homelessness or needing shelter from extreme heat including public restrooms, cooling-off areas, and more at

The hot weather resources list is available to download and view as a PDF.

Resources at all levels are of particular importance because of the unusual population curve: the large number of colleges and universities, as well as nursing homes and long-care facilities means a high ratio of people older than 65, who have chronic illnesses, outdoor workers, and athletes, all of whom are at high risk from heat.

“The heat risk for student-athletes is high,” said Dr. J.J Hoff, emergency medicine specialist at Duke Health. “Intense outdoor activities overlap with the most humid and hot part of the summer.” Hoff is assistant medical director for Duke Life Flight and medical director for Duke Event Medicine. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine.

He stressed that “the key to mitigating [the bodily effects of high heat] is the gradual increase in activity over time so the body can slowly, steadily get used to it. Our bodies are naturally quite good at adapting to heat exposure.”

That said, extreme heat, high humidity, and physical exertion can easily outstrip the body’s ability to cope.

“Very often when you’re exposed to heat, you might feel a little bit lightheaded,” said Hoff. “Sweat is the body’s natural response to try to cool itself. If you feel that is not doing the job, or if your skin seems dryer than it should be, especially when you’re in the heat, that would be time to remove yourself from that exposure. Seek shade, seek cooler temperatures, and start hydrating.”

Know the Signs of Heat Stroke

It is important for everyone, even children, to be able to recognize the symptoms of heat stroke, which can be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heat stroke is characterized by hot, red, and dry skin because sweating has stopped; rapid and strong pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, upset stomach, confusion, and passing out.

Call for medical help. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition. While waiting, get the victim to a cool place immediately, preferably into a cool (not cold) bath or shower, or gently spray with a garden hose. Do not give fluids to drink.

Heat exhaustion often precedes heat stroke. Those symptoms include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, weariness, weakness, dizziness, headache, upset stomach or vomiting, and fainting. Recommended treatment is getting the person into air conditioning or to a cool spot, cool (not cold) drinks, and rest.

Gregory DL Morris is an independent journalist based in Chapel Hill with more than 30 years’ experience covering business, environment, energy and infrastructure. He has reported from all 50 states, eight Canadian provinces, and 17 countries on five continents.

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