Because our reaction to weather is relative to the climate we live in, there are a few definitions of a heat wave. All of the definitions indicate it as a period of abnormally and uncomfortably hot and usually humid weather.
The World Meteorological Organization is specific in its definition by stating that a heat wave is when the daily maximum temperature for more than five consecutive days exceeds the average maximum temperature by 9 degrees.
Heat waves are caused by very hot, stagnant air masses. Regions that suffer under intense hot spells are usually dominated by a surface high-pressure system with a mid-tropospheric ridge aloft. Dew points are also high, and to compound matters, wind speeds are often low.
Clear or partly cloudy skies allow intense solar energy to further heat the ground and the air mass. During the heat wave of last week, Wisconsin experienced heat index readings that were over 100 degrees.
High humidity and stagnant air reduce the body’s ability to cool down through sweating. Lives are endangered when these conditions persist day and night for several days. Each summer in the United States, approximately 175 to 200 deaths are attributable to heat waves. Most of these deaths occur in cities, particularly northern cities.
Heat waves also have a strong economic impact. A prolonged heat wave can cause the widespread use of air conditioning, leading to increased demands for power that stress gas and electric utilities. Transportation can be stymied when highway surfaces and railways buckle and warp in the heat. All types of outdoor work, such as landscaping and construction, experience reduced productivity. Agriculture is especially vulnerable as heat waves stunt crops and kill livestock.