Rural residents may not be ready for increasingly intense heat waves
Montana has grappled with days of record-breaking heat this summer. As climate forecasts project heat waves to become more common and more intense in the future, research on the impacts to residents outside of major urban cities is limited.
“We have like 16 fans going," says Alyssa Alsop. She lives in a subsidized apartment complex in Columbia Falls with no air conditioning. She says it’s been so hot inside, her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter has been sick.
"She started puking every night, probably a good three times a night. I’m like, 'she’s too hot.'”
Alsop says rules at her apartment complex and the cost of air condition units make it really difficult to cool down. She tried keeping her front door open at night, but she says that provided only an hour or two of relief. That made her resort to other methods to keep her daughter cool.
"I would give her three, four cold baths, but how many times can I do that, until — you know, I have to work. Yeah, it was a constant headache, really.”
She eventually took her daughter to the emergency room.
Montana broke multiple daily temperature records this summer, according to National Weather Service Meteorologist Marty Whitmore. He says many parts of the state are seeing more days over 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit every year due to climate change.
Cathy Whitlock, an MSU professor and lead author of the Montana Climate Assessment, says Montanans, especially those in rural areas, may not be prepared for these temperatures because most have historically lived without air conditioning.
“It affects the old and the very young, people far from services, people with health conditions, people who live in poverty that don’t have access to cooling systems," Whitlock says. "That covers large areas of Montana, and I think it’s probably our number one concern about climate change going forward.”
The way urban infrastructure keeps cities hotter, known as the urban heat island effect, is well documented. That persistent heat has led to an increase in 911 calls and deaths during heat events, spurring large cities like Seattle to set up emergency cooling shelters.
Researchers say rural areas and smaller towns have been left out of the conversation because it’s hard to identify trends from medical data in small populations. But researchers are finding other ways to demonstrate how heat is impacting these populations.
"Rural areas, it’s true they are still cooler than the urban areas, but the temperature is increasing faster than the urban area,” says East Tennessee State University Professor Ying Li. She's one of the researchers looking into how rural communities are struggling with heat. She says preliminary data indicate rural temperatures in Tennessee could be rising up to twice as fast as urban temperatures.
University of Vermont Researcher Elizabeth Doran is documenting the heat island effect in that state’s small towns. She expects the data will show residents in those communities also struggle with cooling down.
"And we can do something about that once we have that information. We can say, 'Hey, state department, they need a cooling center.' Maybe it’s just a library or a park and splash pad. But we can identify those needs."
Doran and other researchers hope this growing body of evidence gets communities and local and state governments to take action in rural areas. That is starting to happen in Montana.
Dr. Robert Byron with Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate says “It’s getting hotter. How can we help folks? One is making them aware.”
Byron has put together materials to help educate public health departments and residents on how to recognize the signs of heat-related illness. He's also created guides for affordable cooling methods — like using fans to pull in cool air at night or installing reflective coverings on windows during the day.
Byron and others say when that low-hanging fruit isn’t enough, people need a way to cool down.
“In a city setting, or an urban setting, it’s one thing to set up, say, a cooling center with air conditioning ... but if you try to do that same thing in a rural area, it’s more difficult because people are so dispersed,” Byron says.
He says people outside of urban centers may not have close access to health care, so it’s especially important for local public health officials to create solutions for those residents.
Amy Cilimburg with Climate Smart Missoula says that’s made air conditioning more of a necessity in Montana, but not everyone can afford it.
"So what we’re working on is trying to bring different funding sources to be able to help low-income folks be able to get a heat-pump system for their home.”
Electric heat pumps provide both heat and air conditioning. She says that the Inflation Reduction Act will provide much-needed federal funding for this kind of work. But she says for people living in housing they don’t own, helping them cope with a hotter future will be harder to do.
Back in Columbia Falls, Alyssa Alsop says her family eventually bought her a window air conditioning unit.
"We put that in yesterday and it feels a lot better in here."
Aarron Bolton: How hot was it getting in here?
"I would say more than probably 100 degrees in here, at least. It was to the point where you couldn’t sit in here anymore."
Alsop says with the cool air blowing, her daughter slept through the night without puking for the first time in days.
- Hot weather safety
- The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment
This visualization shows monthly global temperature anomalies (changes from an average) between the years 1880 and 2021. Whites and blues indicate cooler temperatures, while oranges and reds show warmer temperatures.These temperatures are based on data from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). Anomalies are defined relative to a base period of 1951 to 1980.