Leigh Ratterman

This week, nearly 100 million Americans are sweltering under heat advisories. Terms like “heat dome” have become part of our vocabulary, as extreme heat events fueled by our overheating climate become more common.

While Missoula might not be top of mind when thinking about extreme heat – especially with the cooler weather we’ve had this month - it is a threat our community faces during our hot, dry summers.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expect to see above normal temperatures in western Montana this summer, so now is the time to prepare. What does that mean for our community? Missoula hasn’t had a plan for dealing with extreme heat – until now.

I, admittedly, did not know a lot about extreme heat before signing on to a collaborative effort with my colleagues at Climate Smart Missoula and Missoula County to create a new campaign, Stay Cool, Missoula. High heat days have always been a nuisance, and I have experienced heat exhaustion on a few occasions while picking up hay from a field on sunny July days, but I didn’t fully understand the risks of extreme heat exposure.

I have lived without air conditioning for all of my adult life, but I have the time and resources to cool off in a river, at a movie, or at a friend's house at a moment’s notice. In other words, I have been privileged enough not to be too impacted by extreme heat.

But as hotter days become more common, their consequences are harder for all of us to avoid. Extreme heat is defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a prolonged period (2 or 3 days) of high heat and humidity with temperatures above 90 degrees.

During the particularly warm summer of 2022, Missoula experienced 45 days at or above 90 degrees. That’s a lot, considering our short window of warm weather in western Montana.

While extreme heat events can impact everyone, they are particularly dangerous for Missoula’s vulnerable populations including the elderly, the very young (under 5 years of age), people living with chronic medical conditions, people experiencing homelessness, outdoor workers, low-income individuals, socially isolated persons, and pregnant people. Pets, animals, and natural ecosystems are susceptible to health effects as a result of extreme heat events, too.

That’s why Missoula County, Climate Smart Missoula, and the City of Missoula are collaborating to create resources and identify strategies related to extreme heat in our community as part of our new Stay Cool, Missoula campaign. We partnered with stakeholders from 18 organizations representing government agencies, nonprofit organizations, university departments, and healthcare facilities in and around Missoula County to identify established programs, top priorities, and greatest need for implementation related to extreme heat preparedness and response.

During the past few months, we have learned about the detrimental impacts of extreme heat on our rivers and trout populations; how some medications can put someone at greater risk for heat-related illness; and how the structural integrity of our roads, bridges, and buildings can be degraded during extreme heat events, to name a few.

Our team is worried about the most vulnerable residents of Missoula, about our urban forests and rivers, and about the connection between heat, wildfire, and wildfire smoke.

Wo while we can’t exactly demand that the weather cools off, and efforts to cut carbon pollution and limit global heating are essential but not happening fast enough, we can take practical steps locally to help our community prepare for and cope with heat.

As part of the Stay Cool, Missoula campaign, we will soon release an Extreme Heat Toolkit that provides a strategic, comprehensive set of actions, as well as educational and outreach materials to address extreme heat across different sectors of the Missoula community. Additionally, we’re creating an interactive Extreme Heat StoryMap, which combines extreme heat data with safety information and will serve as a public guide for extreme heat education and resources in the Missoula community. Both of these resources will be released in July, so keep an eye out!

Extreme heat can be uniquely challenging in places like Missoula, where it can catch us off guard: the 2022 heat wave in the Pacific Northwest that led to hundreds of deaths across a region known for typically cooler weather is a tragic example.

As we experience more extreme heat, thankfully there are many ways to prepare and look out for each other, helping build a stronger and more resilient community in the face of our changing climate.

Developing and sharing these new resources is an important first step, but it will take all of us – healthcare providers, local government, non-profit organizations, and residents alike - to turn strategies into action and protect our local people, animals, ecosystems, and infrastructure. I hope that my community gets as much from the campaign as I have in helping to build it.

Leigh Ratterman is a Climate and Sustainability Specialist with the City of Missoula. With Alli Kane, Climate Action Program Coordinator with Missoula County and Susan Teitelman, Climate Resiliency Specialist with Climate Smart Missoula, she has co-led development of Missoula’s extreme heat planning efforts. This Climate Connections column is brought to you by Climate Smart Missoula two Fridays of every month. Learn more about our work, support our efforts, and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.