Climatologist says serious implications exist for children, elderly and vulnerable populations

A climatologist at the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology has issued a strong warning for Jamaicans to avoid prolonged sun exposure in the very hot days being experienced.

According to Cedric Van Meerbeeck, who made the impassioned plea, the negative effects of heatwave days now being experienced locally and in other regions have resulted in deaths and other health emergencies.

"We have research that demonstrates that people are dying because of heat. We are actually recording it nowadays; we have done the exercise in Grenada. I know the French have done that for their overseas territories as well and in particular areas you might have hundreds of people dying simply because of heat," Van Meerbeeck told the 2023 Wet/Hurricane Season Caribbean Regional Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) at the Jamaica Pegasus in New Kingston on Wednesday morning.

Van Meerbeeck, who is also technical lead of CariCOF, said, "The situation that we are seeing in Jamaica right now — not just in terms of temperatures in general, but those very hot days that constitute heatwaves — we are seeing it right across the region. So it's not an isolated thing. The only way we are going to get substantial cooling is if we have a lot of cloudiness and rainfall. For much of the season sometimes we are going to be in heatwaves, so the message is protect yourselves, please."

Noting that it isn't only humans who are susceptible to the heat, Van Meerbeeck said the environment, cattle and poultry also stand to suffer.

"We have cattle, for instance, that feel heat stress in a way that, if they are not properly cooled, they will not produce milk; if the chickens are not cooled the stock might die. So heat is something we need to start thinking about more and more," he noted.

In zeroing in on the health implications for children, he said "our schools are not air-conditioned, and for good reason, but the problem is, for every half degree warmer, every child loses about one per cent of learning capacity".

"Secondly, if you compare the heart rate of a child after playing half-an-hour in the hot sun during lunchtime versus a child who plays in the shade, there is a 10 beats per minute difference in heart rate; that is significant. That leads to fatigue and everything that comes from there. So, protect your children, make sure that they do not exercise in the hot sun in the middle of the day. If you know physical education (PE) teachers, tell them that. If you know that your children are likely to play outside tell them please stay in shade. Protect our children," he stated.

Meanwhile, senior meteorological technician at the Met Service in Jamaica Peter Fearon said it will be getting hotter over the next three to six months for the region, noting that this will have further implications for heat stress.

In addressing the question of how many heatwave days were expected for June to August for the Caribbean region, Fearon said the probability was for at least 30 heatwave days in August, September and October.

He said it is expected that maximum temperatures will exceed the normal 60 to 70 per cent in the western areas and a little lower, 40 to 45 degrees, in the eastern areas.

"For the next six months, basically, the trend is the same, but for the climate outlook in summary, June, July, August, heat discomfort will strongly increase for August; heat stress will peak during the heatwaves which are likely to be more frequent than in 2021," he stated.

In the meantime, Loretto Duffy-Mayers of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourist Association, speaking in a personal capacity in response to the data, said, "I am very shocked about the impact on our children. Should we not seriously be assessing this and writing to the relevant authorities and expressing our concerns before something egregious happens?"

Forum participant Orvin Paige of the Antigua and Barbuda Met Service said the concerns of experts about the issue have to be escalated.

"Oftentimes, when we have discussions like this we tend to look towards the authorities to make the hard decisions, but we have to agitate from our level as technicians with the data. We need to be making the presentations, we need to be informing the various individuals, ministries or agencies to pay attention and keep pushing the buttons because this is not a small matter," he declared.

"We are talking about children, [but] we haven't spoken about nursing homes, construction workers, and even tourists coming to our various destinations. And so the call is for us to agitate with the data and hopefully they will listen and begin to pay attention to this very important issue," he said.

A Ministry of Health official, speaking to the Jamaica Observer on the subject, said the entity is concerned and is encouraging Jamaicans to avoid prolonged exposure to the sun.

The ministry said this was particularly important for the vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the bedridden, children, those with pre-existing medical conditions, and overweight individuals.

According to the Ministry of Health, illnesses related to excessive heat exposure can range from mild to life-threatening. Health officials are, therefore, recommending preventative measures for Jamaicans such as increased hydration, indoor exercise where possible. It says outdoor activities should be limited to mornings and evenings, especially for schools and entities which cater to children. The ministry said lightweight, light-coloured and loose-fitting clothes are recommended.

Further, The University of the West Indies, Mona campus's Dr Jakaya Campbell, noting the implications of the heatwave for individuals like security guards and children, said, "What we are facing and the changes we are seeing has pushed us to the point that we are entering what is almost a new regime."

"Things are not the same anymore. We need to start looking at the elderly in the summer months. It is now becoming more likely for the elderly to die [from strokes]. We need an early warning system," he said.

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS Senior staff reporter dunkleywillisa@jamaicaobserver.com

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