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The heat is on

Jul 6, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

No one likes a heat wave, but science says we'll tolerate the second one better than the first

The change in the weather from Thursday to Friday was like a cool drink of water after an all-day hike in the desert. It was high time.

Even Fremont County residents with years of memory are hard-pressed to remember a period so hot this early in the season. Now there is news every day of "our" heatwave's effects in other parts of the country as it moves east slowly, ever so slowly.

Compounding the problems elsewhere is the aftermath of a string of windstorms of near-hurricane forces that knocked down tens of thousands of trees and brought electric power lines down with them.

A Ranger staff member's husband arrived for a temporary work assignment in West Virginia on Friday, where the electrical power at his place of lodging had been down for a full week and the air conditioning with it. Blessedly for him, Thursday saw the return of the AC on a day when the temperature hit 103 and humidity hovered at 89 percent.

We tend to think of weather-related emergencies in Wyoming as having mostly to do with winter. But our recent experience demonstrates that there can be high-risk situations in the summer as well. It's entirely possible, even likely, that we'll see another stretch of super-hot weather this summer. It's just the first week of July, after all, and climate statistics show we're still some weeks away from what normally is our hottest time of year.

If there's any good news to all of this, it might be found in a new Yale University study on heat and the human body's reaction to it. The researchers found that a heat wave early in the season, such as the one we've just endured, is harder to deal with physically than a heatwave later in the year. The study proved that the sudden onset of hot weather at a time when we aren't accustomed to it is much harder on the body. When we've been used to cool spring weather and suddenly are immersed in record summer heat, our bodies struggle mightily to deal with it.

But the second time around apparently is much easier, say the scientists.

"With repeated exposure to heat, the human body adjusts to better respond to heat, and this process typically takes one or two weeks of exposure to hot temperatures," the summary statement reads.

Study author Michelle Bell, a Yale professor of environmental health, wrote that deaths and incidents of heat-related illness during the first heat wave of a summer to be about double those in later heat waves.

Also, the researchers found, the human body can deal with extended periods of extreme heat much more easily if it can spend some time in a cooler environment first. In a 24-hour heatwave, spending three to four hours in a cooled movie theater, store or office can ready the body for 18-20 hours of continuous hot conditions.

On Thursday we got the best possible form of heat relief -- cooler weather. It would be nice if we didn't have to put the Yale findings to the test for the rest of the summer, but that's not likely. Meanwhile, we can bolster ourselves to some extent through the scientific evidence that when that second heat wave arrives, it seems we'll be able to handle it better.

Finally, a hot summer can be a good time to remind ourselves of another fact of climatalogical life. Six months from today will be Jan. 6. On that day, the last thing on anyone's mind in Wyoming will be excessive heat.

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