(CN) - Deadly heat waves in the Midwest and eastern United States may be predictable weeks out by looking at ocean temperatures in the North Pacific Ocean, according to a study published Monday.
The discovery, published online in the journal Nature Geoscience, revolves around the relationship between sea-surface temperatures in the North Pacific Ocean and heat waves throughout the United States.
Studying these trends can enable local governments and farmers to anticipate acute spikes in heat up to two months in advance that can significantly damage crops and lead to death for homeless and elderly people.
"Our hope is that people who are making plans for cities, or farms, or utilities will be able to take advantage of this information and prepare for these potential future impacts," Dr. Karen A. McKinnon, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a co-author of the study, told Courthouse News.
The study reviewed excessively hot summer days in the eastern half of the nation between 1982 and 2015, and compared these instances with temperature data for sea surfaces in the North Pacific Ocean.
Analyzing the data allowed the researchers to establish a relationship between rising sea temperatures and accompanying heat waves. They tested their process with data from the summer of 2012, which highlighted warning signs of upcoming excessive heat.
Despite seasonal forecasts at the time suggesting that the summer would feature normal temperatures, there were heat waves in the eastern U.S. in June and July.
"Statistically we're able to find a predictive relationship, where when we observe the Pacific Extreme Pattern we will tend to get hot weather seven weeks later," McKinnon said.
Present strategies for anticipating heat waves lack accuracy beyond short-term forecasts. Long-term projections, including seasonal forecasts, are more general and do not necessarily focus on extreme weather events.
Advance notice of an upcoming heat wave would enable farmers, local governments and citizens to prepare for potential hazards. This can include purchasing more water for crops, opening up cooling shelters, or utilities having enough electricity for a surge in air-conditioning usage.
Excessive heat led to an average of about 660 deaths per year between 2006 and 2010, which represents about 30 percent of America's weather-related moralities during those years. Lightning, floods and storms accounted for just 132 deaths annually in that time frame.
McKinnon explained that people in cities throughout the Midwest and the Northeast are generally less prepared for heat waves since cities in those regions are generally cooler.
The summer of 1995 in Chicago was particularly lethal, which led to more than 700 deaths in five days.
"There's probably a lack of education, with people potentially not realizing how dangerous these events can be for your health," McKinnon said. "I know that a lot of cities are emphasizing that it's better to stay inside."
Elderly and homeless people are most at risk when heat waves strike.
The elderly tend to not use air conditioning or drink a sufficient amount of water, which makes accounting for them in advance especially critical.
Homeless individuals have minimal opportunities to get out of the sun, and therefore require access to cooling shelters in order to escape the heat.
"Our idea is that having the knowledge ahead of time will generally help you be able to prepare for the negative impacts of these heat waves," McKinnon said.