Monday, July 30, 2012

Beneath the Burning Sky

The local government disaster prevention authorities are once again broadcasting their cautionary message: "Avoid going out under the burning sky". Entenka (炎天下), as I've mentioned before, means "beneath/under the burning/blazing sky/heavens", and while poetic, is a distressingly accurate way of describing the weather in the latest heat wave. The announcement goes on to exhort citizens to drink plenty of liquid, get enough salt, and use cooling equipment.

Temperatures have remained high nationwide for the eighth day in a row, the Japan Meteorological Agency has reported, and are expected to stay high through at least early next weekend. On Sunday, the highest temperature was 38.4 degrees in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, up from 37.1 there on Saturday. The mercury rose above 35 degrees in more than 130 locations across Japan over the weekend, with temperatures over 35 recorded at 61 of the 927 observation stations across the country as of Sunday afternoon. I'm writing this on Monday, and I expect that similar data will be reported throughout the week.

Five people died and 1,525 were hospitalized for heatstroke on Saturday, and at least three more died and 900 were hospitalized on Sunday, according to reports from the Fire and Disaster Management Agency and Kyodo News.

On Saturday, the presumed heatstroke victims included an 87-year-old woman  found collapsed in her home in Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture, a 43-year-old man working at a gilding factory in Isezaki, Gunma Prefecture, and an 84-year-old man farming in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture. On Sunday, they were an 80-year-old woman in Kashima, Saga Prefecture, a woman in her 70s farming in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, and another 80-year-old woman found dead in her bedroom in Yamatokoriyama, Nara Prefecture, according to local authorities.

I understand that the Fire and Disaster Management Agency is urging elderly people to check that their air conditioning units have been changed from heating to cooling, since several elderly heatstroke fatalities have been found to have had their A/C units still set on heating from last winter. I'm still looking for further details about this, since I don't see how even thermostats set for heating would run the temperatures up beyond the high-30s outside temperature, and I would expect the people to have set the units' temperature controls to somewhat less, such as 28 or so even if they were trying to save energy. That would indeed be warm in winter, but considerably cooler than the days have been lately: last Friday it was already 30 or so at eight in the morning in Kumagaya, which still shares the record for high temperatures (40.9 on 8/16/2007) with Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but even high-end winter heating settings on air conditioning units would most likely be below ambient daytime temperatures lately.

The elderly seem to be especially at risk, for various physiological and psychological reasons, but at least one of the weekend victims was relatively young, and many of those hospitalized but surviving have been children, many of whom collapsed while engaged in athletic events. For example, two baseball players from Gifu Commercial & Business High School were hospitalized for heatstroke symptoms after helping their team win the prefectural district elimination round for the National High School Baseball Tournament. Far from being frail elders, these are high school kids in excellent physical condition.

The high school athletes  also almost certainly have been trained to get lots of water and keep their salt levels optimized. Sometimes good physical condition, knowledge, and training just aren't enough, though. I was in excellent physical condition and well aware of the risks and countermeasures surrounding dehydration and heatstroke many years ago when I nevertheless collapsed while camping. That was entirely my fault, though, since I carelessly drank a lot of beer and iced coffee instead of water, and the combination of diuretics and high temperature provided the consequences that I should have expected.

Theory and practical implementation aren't at all the same, and having been "burned" once, I've been extra careful since then. As we all should be, when we're beneath the burning sky.