How Not to Beat the Heat


It’s been a brutal summer. Last month three thousand new high-temperature records were set in the U.S., then the early dog days of July knocked out power for millions on the East Coast. Heat waves kill more people in the U.S. than any other weather phenomenon, including tornadoes and hurricanes, and they’re only going to get worse. The CDC projects that by mid-century, global warming could increase the annual number of heat-related deaths in the U.S. from several hundred to the thousands.

Given how serious severe heat can be, one would think more people would embrace expert advice on staying safe. Yet many of the best recommendations run counter to our ordinary habits. For example, we are advised to do nothing, nothing at all, except find a cool comfortable place and sit tight till the heat wave passes. That is, be lazy. Mom would be appalled.

Then there’s confusion about what to drink. Sports drinks–those candy-colored concoctions of salt, sugar, and water–have a powerful foothold in the sweat-means-guzzle exercise market, but they don’t add much of anything useful. The CDC and other experts are fine with tap water, since so much food has the necessary salt and minerals. The point is to drink a lot of anything, as long as it is not alcoholic.

Most surprising, though, is the advice on what to wear. Americans tend to strip down as soon as summer comes, the skimpier the better. In the desert though, they know better; to combat the heat, you have to cover up. Forget Kate Upton and forget the Speedos: instead, embrace your inner Bedouin. For thousands of years they have roamed the desert draped in loose, layered garments that do more than block the sun’s rays; the robes also give sweat enough space to do its stuff. The Bedouins long ago realized that perspiration is the key to staying cool: first, it chills the skin directly (lick your hand and blow on it–cool, right?), but as important, when sweat evaporates, core heat is dissipated into the surrounding air. That’s why we are so miserable on humid days–the air is already thick with water, thwarting our body’s attempts to soothe by evaporation.

Of course following the best advice may not work for everyone, particularly the elderly and those on various medications. Many drugs, including those for heart disease, hypertension, or depression, alter the way our body regulates temperature.

So there you have it: to survive the 2012 heat wave, be extra lazy, drink tap water, bundle up, and sweat as much as possible. Given how close to the edge many people feel when the thermometer hits a hundred, embracing this seemingly illogical advice may be the only logical thing to do.

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