Extreme Heat: When Outdoor Sports Become Risky

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The National Weather Service heat index includes a combination of air temperature and the relative humidity to capture what it actually feels like outside (which is usually warmer than what the thermometer is reading). When the heat index reaches 90°F, the NWS advises individuals to use “extreme caution” if exercising or working in the outdoors (and that’s for a heat index calculation that assumes a shady location with a slight breeze).  

A Climate Central analysis of 239 locations in the United States shows that 198 cities have experienced an increase in the annual average number of days with heat index temperatures of 90°F or higher over the last four decades, based on a linear regression analysis. These extreme heat days are now comprising much of the summer for many cities in the South and Southwest, while areas of the country that had relatively few summer days reach the 90°F heat index in the past are now experiencing weeks of them. A “danger” day occurs when the combination of heat and humidity makes it feel like it’s 105°F or hotter. Nearly a dozen U.S. cities experienced an increase of at least 4 danger days on average since 1979. 

Climate change’s impact is being felt throughout the world of sports as these extreme heat events become more common. On high heat index days, sports and heat become a dangerous mix. According to the Center for Disease Control, heat-related illnesses are the leading cause of death or disability among high school athletes. During hot, humid weather, sweat cannot evaporate as easily from the skin, so athletes are at greater risk of developing  illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke – the latter being potentially fatal. With an estimated 8 million high school athletes across the U.S., late summer is the time when many head back to football, soccer, field hockey, or track and field practice—and when parents, guardians and coaches need to be vigilant about the potential risk for exertional heat illnesses. 

The increased intensity and frequency of high heat index days are also complicating professional and amateur sports events around the country. The July heatwave that affected Midwestern and Eastern states led to the cancellation of the New York City Triathlona number of running races, as well as horse races in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. 

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