Grad students work with climatologist on tool to alert communities to dangerous heat levels

UW Grads

From left to right, graduate students Sara Pabich, Elizabeth Berg, and Becky Rose are collecting data for a new heat warning system that could help save lives. PHOTO: ALTHEA DOTZOUR

As dangerous heat levels are breaking records across the United States and the world, three University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate students are collecting data to inform a heat warning system based on health outcomes — a tool they hope could eventually save lives.

Nelson Institute Environment & Resources PhD students Elizabeth Berg and Becky Rose and Public Health and Public Affairs masters degree student Sara Pabich are tracking extreme heat events in six cities, including Madison and Milwaukee.

They’re working with climatologist Larry Kalkstein as a part of the Wisconsin Heat Health Network, which is supported by UniverCity Alliance and collaborators that include the City of Madison, Milwaukee County, City of Milwaukee, and Dane County. Their research will inform a warning system in Madison and Milwaukee based on health outcomes that considers mortality and weather data rather than only meteorology.

“People’s response to heat is more important than the intensity of the heat itself. We are trying to determine when people are most sensitive to heat waves,” said Kalkstein, who is the president of Applied Climatologists, Inc. and chief heat science advisor for the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. “Health practitioners want to know when people are most vulnerable to heat related illnesses and deaths.”

The stakes are high. According to a 2021 report from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, the number of days that will exceed 90 degrees in Wisconsin is expected to triple by mid-century. Extreme heat already causes more fatalities than any other weather-related event in the state and the country.

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