This summer’s initial forecast is calling for much of the same as last year; dry and warmer than average for much of the country. With thousands of sporting events scheduled for the summer, that brings heat safety to the top of the list for event organizers. From little league to the big league, from fans to the front offices, no one will be able to escape the potential risks of heat stress this summer. This extreme heat is a trend that some are linking to climate change, and there are some real risks related to these temperatures beyond physical safety, including operational considerations, athletic performance and more.
Just like 2021, the overriding theme of this summer’s temperature is “warmer than normal.” Above normal temperatures are expected across most of the U.S. this summer, with the warmest temperatures expected across the interior West through the Central Plains, so if there are extended heat episodes this summer, this will be the best chance to find them. The Eastern part of the country may see more moderate temperatures, but that region also the greatest chances for above-normal rainfall to occur. Although that rainfall can act as a drag on temperatures, it also acts to increase humidity levels, which brings about physical safety concerns like those that come with high temperatures.
This is part of a continuing pattern of above-normal temperatures. Since 1979, the average surface temperature across the United States has risen at an average rate of 0.54°F per decade and eight of the top 10 warmest years on record have happened since 1998. In fact, 2012 and 2016 were the two warmest years on record.
As a result, we are now seeing heat stroke continue to be one of the leading causes of death in young, healthy athletes. In the U.S., that risk is highest for football players, seeing up to five cases in every 100,000 players. In football, there are many factors contributing to heat stroke risk, including the player’s equipment and pads, over exertion occurring during hot, humid weather, and dehydration. The impact is not just happening with football players, but other athletes as well.
Athletes at the highest levels are some of those others being affected. One of the hottest Olympic Games on record was held last summer in Tokyo, where organizers used a variety of tools to help keep athletes, volunteers, and attendees safe, including mist-spraying stations, cooling vests, AI devices that warn of heat-stroke risk and even distributing salt tablets and ice cream.
The main concern with excessive heat is that it pushes the human body beyond its limits. When extreme heat combines with high humidity, it becomes a potentially lethal situation as the body’s natural cooling mechanism does not function as efficiently. Heat stroke can be minimized with the proper training and tools and there are several options to consider in providing the most accurate weather and heat information to coaches and officials. The first is a monitoring service that can provide location-specific notifications sent directly to officials. Another option is to have a weather station installed on or around sporting facilities. This station can provide up-to-the-minute readings, including current Wet Bulb Globe Temperature, which measures ambient temperature, relative humidity, wind, and solar radiation, giving a more accurate measure of heat stress potential.
While heat stress is a major concern, the warm weather is impacting overall athletic performance and there is a growing body of research highlighting the implications of heat on athletic performance. One recent studyshows the detrimental effects of heat on performance of professional soccer players. The study found that in extreme conditions, an athlete’s core body temperatures can rise as much as 1.5°C above normal, putting them within range of a low-grade fever, and sweat loss can decrease by 50%, leading to overheating and ultimately a slower pace of play. Many measures are being looked at by sports organizations to better manage the increasingly warming temperatures and impact on performance. It could include increasing the amount of time athletes have to acclimate to new weather conditions before a competition or choosing a competition location based on forecasted temperatures. For others, the changes might be in infrastructure, like adding shades, fans, or new cooling technology for both athletes and spectators.
As the school year ends and summer camps and games ramp up, there should be a heightened awareness about how sports organizations can adapt to the changing weather conditions. Athlete safety should always be the foremost concern for athletic organizations, particularly when it comes to heat. This is especially true at the beginning of summer when athletes may not be conditioned to practicing in the heat and during the first few weeks of August when temperatures are generally much warmer than other times during the summer. Having accurate information about outdoor weather conditions, specifically Wet Bulb Globe Temperature, are crucial for maintaining athlete safety.