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Socio-Economic Differences In Extreme Heat Risk Perception May Impact Responses

Sign saying Caution Extreme Heat Danger in rocks with mountains in the background.

The warm temperatures of spring are heading our way and the intense heat of the summer is just around the corner. Now, there is new research investigating how we perceive extreme heat and how it can affect us. 

"So extreme heat is a major health risk. Extreme heat can exacerbate existing health conditions, particularly people with heart conditions, people with asthma, extreme heat can make those worse. It can also cause things like heat stroke, heat stress, heat exhaustion for anyone who is out and exposed to extreme heat," said Peter Howe, a professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University.

He studies how people perceive extreme-heat risk because often people’s perception of heat determines how they will respond.

"So we were interested in how the public across the country perceives the risk of extreme heat and this hasn’t been studied before systematically," Howe said. "So we surveyed people, over 9,000 Americans during the summer and we were able to determine that people generally don’t see extreme heat to be as extreme of a risk that it actually is." 

Howe and his collaborators at Yale University found differences in how people perceive extreme heat risk based on several characteristics, like socio-economics.  

"People who were in lower-income categories or were racial or ethnic minorities were more likely to perceive being at risk of heat," Howe said. "And this is similar to what we find with other hazards like floods or tornadoes, people who are more vulnerable, people who are in these more vulnerable socioeconomic categories tend to be more affected by hazards and they tend to see themselves as being more affected as well."

The National Weather Service Heat Index reports that Utah currently has 15 days per year that are classified as dangerous or extremely dangerous. By 2050, that number is expected to double, placing millions of people at risk.

According to Howe, this research could help city planners organize communication strategies to target specific groups whose risk perceptions are lower than they should be to help keep everyone safe during extreme heat events.  

More information about this research can be found in the scientific article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences