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New research uncovers how extreme heat and storms drive prolonged power outages — here's who's affected most

Power outages can already be life-threatening, particularly for people who depend on medical devices.

Power outages can already be life-threatening, particularly for people who depend on medical devices.

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study has uncovered a link between certain extreme weather events and prolonged power outages in socially vulnerable communities in New York City and the surrounding area.  

What's happening?

As detailed by The Conversation, the analysis revealed that 40% of outages in the state between 2017 and 2020 occurred within eight hours after severe weather, including heat, cold, rainstorms, wind, lightning, or snowstorms. 

After such events, communities that scored within the top 25% in the social vulnerability index metric were without electricity for an average of 12.4 hours, nearly five hours longer than communities in the bottom 25% for social vulnerability. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that the metric takes into account factors such as housing costs and types, employment and marital status, racial and ethnic groups, and access to transportation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a combination of extreme elements led to longer-lasting power outages. However, the study found that scorching temperatures resulted in quicker losses of power, likely due to large numbers of people pulling electricity from the grid for air conditioning.  

Why are these findings important?

Power outages can already be life-threatening, particularly for people who depend on medical devices — which typically have a backup capacity of no more than eight hours, as reported by The Conversation

As the outlet noted, though, heat-linked outages occur within six hours of temperature spikes, meaning that people are losing the ability to run their ACs when the extreme event is still happening.  

According to the National Weather Service, extreme heat is the leading weather-related killer. This is why it's crucial to have an action plan for these events, especially given that they are occurring more frequently as a result of rising global temperatures.

Warmer-than-average temperatures do occur from time to time as part of a natural cycle, like during El Niño years. However, human activities are causing our planet to overheat, supercharging the weather and making events like heatwaves more severe. 

According to the study, an aging electrical grid and severe weather contributed to a "78% increase in weather-related power outages [from 2011-21] compared to the previous decade."

What can be done to protect people during power outages?

The Conversation highlighted the importance of ensuring community access to battery storage, cooling centers, and parks with trees, the last of which prevents a heat island from forming. The study also advocates for equitable improvements to an aging electrical grid. 

At this time, as noted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, most of the power in the country comes from dirty fuels, the main cause of rising temperatures linked to extreme weather

To create a cooler future, the U.S. has invested billions in clean-energy projects, including solar and offshore wind. Hundreds of thousands well-paying jobs should be created as well. At an individual level, unplugging unused appliances can eliminate pollution from dirty fuels.

Meanwhile, knowing what to do during a heat wave can go a long way toward keeping you safe. Avoiding strenuous exercise, alcohol, and caffeine can help your body retain essential salts and minerals, while drinking water can ensure you are hydrated. The Community Disaster Resilience Zones Act is focused on providing resources to the most at-risk communities.   

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