Climatologist Larry Kalkstein discusses excessive heat, human health in Weston Roundtable lecture

As heat continues to be the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States, climatologist Larry Kalkstein hopes a first-of-its-kind heat ranking system could be a solution. 

Kalkstein, president of Applied Climatologists, Inc. and chief heat science advisor for the Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, and collaborators that include the City of Madison, Milwaukee County, City of Milwaukee and Dane County, are developing a hierarchy of heat waves based on how many people could die during a period of extreme heat.

Larry Kalkstein

“The objective is to have the public learn the heat wave ranking system, so they will be informed as to what they should be doing if a dangerous category three heat wave comes their way,” Kalkstein said.    

The benefit of a ranking system would be to know how the heat wave might impact human health and to provide local leaders with recommended interventions like adding staff to emergency rooms or opening cooling centers. 

“Madison and Milwaukee are very vulnerable to heat related incidents and heat related morbidity and mortality, mainly because of the climate,” Kalkstein said. “When all of a sudden you get one of these terrible heat waves, it’s unexpected. It is the variability of the weather, more than the heat intensity itself that kills people.”

Kalkstein discussed this developing ranking system, excessive heat and human health during a Weston Roundtable lecture on Thursday, April 28. A recording of Kalkstein’s lecture is available online. 

UniverCity Alliance first invited Kalkstein to Madison two years ago to give a Weston Lecture on heat and health, but that plan was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. When that talk was canceled, UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter organized a group of interested stakeholders to have an initial networking meeting about how the issue manifested in Madison and Dane County. This group included Dane County, the City of Madison, the Sustainable Madison Committee, the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, and University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute.

The group, which ultimately became the Heat Health Network, grew to include representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management, the City of Milwaukee Sustainability Office, a UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies graduate student, a University of Minnesota-Twin Cities graduate student, and Public Health Madison & Dane County. 

Luter said the formation of the Heat Health Network is a “perfect example” of how UniverCity Alliance works. 

“We invite cutting-edge thinkers about major issues to Madison, get them connected with our local government and campus partners, and good things happen,” Luter said. “This project grew organically because of the passion people have for mitigating the impacts of climate change-induced extreme heat events on health. I’ve just been so impressed with city and county leadership, as well as Larry’s energy and expertise.” 

As a result of these connections, Madison and Milwaukee are pilot cities through the Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation for advancing a heat wave ranking system based on human health. Kalkstein is also involved with a similar collaborative in Miami-Dade County. 

Since the first meeting, the DHS’s Climate and Health Program secured funding through the Centers for Disease Control’s Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative to fund a separate but related project of Kalkstein’s: the development of a heat warning system. This system would advise the National Weather Service office in Sullivan on making more informed predictions on the most dangerous heat events. 

Kalkstein said this warning system will provide guidance on when an excessive heat warning should be issued.  

He credited UniverCity Alliance with bringing together partners in southern Wisconsin to continue making progress on this issue. 

“(Gavin and I) started the conversation, but then when we decided we needed to bring in a larger circle of people, it was UniverCity Alliance,” Kalkstein said. “That’s what got this all started.” 

—Abigail Becker