How Nighttime Heat Can Affect Your Body Today

Last year was the hottest year in human history and this year Canada continues to experience heat waves and record temperatures.

One big shift is the increase in nighttime temperatures, which is raising health concerns across the country as some nighttime forecasts across Eastern Canada predict highs of 24 degrees Celsius, instead of the typical 14 degrees Celsius.

Wasn’t the night cooler in the past?

During his 50 years of studying Canadian weather, David Phillips is not deterred by daytime temperatures that exceed 30 degrees Celsius.

What worries him is the increase in what he calls tropical nights, where daily minimum temperatures are above 20 degrees Celsius. Phillips is a senior climatologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

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With the recent heat domes, these nights with a “jungle-like” humidity are becoming more common.

Chart showing tropical nights in Canada

He attributes some of this to larger cities with high density and little green space. Built surfaces such as buildings and roads tend to absorb solar radiation and release it as heat, reducing nighttime cooling during heat waves.

The wind is also reduced at night and the cloud cover keeps the heat in and prevents heat from escaping. All this is then exacerbated by more frequent and longer-lasting heat events due to climate change.

WATCH | What happens in a heat dome:

What is a heat dome? A climatologist explains

Dave Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, explains the conditions that create a heat dome and how “oppressive and sultry” temperatures are maintained for days.

Phillips admits that 24 degrees Celsius doesn’t sound bad during the day, but the feeling is even worse at night when the wind dies down and humidity remains high.

“That’s when it becomes a real health problem,” Phillips said. “Most deaths from heat waves are from exposure to heat at night.”

He added that the number of recorded heat-related deaths may be underestimated due to underlying health conditions.

Heat poses health risks

“At night, people are trying to sleep and we know that poorer sleep is associated with increased risk of mental health problems and cognitive problems in the long term,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

For Lem, exposure to extreme heat is like running a marathon.

“It makes your body, heart and lungs have to work extra hard to keep your body healthy,” she said. “If you’re hot at night, you’re essentially running that marathon around the clock, and your body doesn’t get that chance to recover from the stress of the day.”

Lem has lived in units without air conditioning and is familiar with exposure to extreme heat. “It really impacted my cognition, my acuity and my ability to focus on patient care,” she said.

Table of the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke

She knows surgeons who have booked air-conditioned hotels to ensure they are sharp the next day, but she realises that this is not an option for everyone. That is why she believes in government policies to ensure that everyone has access to indoor cooling, whether they own or rent a home.

“When we have heat waves, we see an increase in domestic violence and also an increase in car accidents. Not only does heat make people more restless, but if you don’t get enough sleep at night, the problem is only made worse.”

Tips to stay cool

Maintaining a cool core body temperature is essential. Phillips and Lem recommend:

  • Going to cooling centers, such as libraries or shopping malls
  • Stay hydrated
  • Take cool showers
  • Spraying the face and body with water
  • Wear lighter clothing and reduce the number of layers

They also emphasize checking on family, friends, relatives and neighbors. Heat-related deaths often occur in people who live alone, especially the elderly.

“There are ways we can adapt to this extreme heat,” Phillips said. “It’s not just giving everybody air conditioning, it’s looking at people, nighttime cooling centers, a buddy system.”

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