Is it time for someone to give each major heat wave a name like what’s been done with hurricanes and viral epidemics? Well, a meteorologist named Guy Walton has offered to be that guy. The 30-year veteran of The Weather Channel has come up with a heat wave naming convention that may end up, ahem, fueling an interesting response. He’s been naming the major U.S. heat waves of 2023 after big petroleum companies, calling the first two Heat Wave Amoco and Heat Wave BP. And in July, the U.S. has been getting its fill of what Walton has dubbed Heat Wave Chevron.
Walton refined this whole petroleum company naming convention in April 2023, when he wrote on his Guy on Climate blog, “This year, as promised, we are going to poke a little fun at oil companies by using their names to name heatwaves.” Gee, why would anyone name a heatwave after an oil company? Walton explained, “Petroleum companies are a big reason why heatwaves have been getting worse year after year for the past forty years, at least, due to carbon pollution from the burning of their products.”
So how has Walton decided to assign names? Well, you may have caught wind of how hurricanes have been named over the years. The World Meteorological Organization maintains six alphabetically-ordered lists of names for Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, one list for each of the next six years. In a given year, they will start at the top of the list—which was Arlene for 2023—and then progress down the alphabetical list until the end of hurricane season or the end of the list, whichever comes first. After the World Meteorological Organization cycles through the six lists over the next six years, they will start again in 2029 with the 2023 list.
Walton decided to do something similar for heat waves. He listed 20 major oil companies from Wikipedia’s compilation of oil exploration and production companies in alphabetical order starting with Amoco and going all the way to XTO. His plan is to progress down this list alphabetically in a hurricane-like fashion. So as you can see, as of today, he’s already gone through the first three names on this list. That means that in just a few months 15% of the names have already been assigned. Umm, since there is this thing called climate change and many political and business leaders have been moving about as fast as a sloth smoking weed to address this problem, chances are the frequency of major heat waves will only increase in the coming years. That means Walton may tear through this list of oil companies fairly quickly. It should only be a “miner” problem, though, as he is prepared to have coal companies next on the list.
Of course, not all heat waves may earn a name from Walton. For example, a few days of hotter weather is not the same as a searing-you-are-in-the-hot-pot-now heat wave. So, Walton also introduced a rating system for heat waves that’s a bit more specific than “a little hot out here today” versus “my chocolate is melting” versus “f— it’s hot” versus “it’s really, really bleeping hot.” Walton’s rating system mirrors to some degree the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. There’s one key difference, though. While the hurricane scale is a one-to-five rating based solely on the maximum wind speed sustained by the hurricane, Walton’s heat wave scale is based on a combination of factors:
- Category 1 (Low Level Heat Wave): Walton described this as “when temperatures and humidity get hot enough to threaten the health of susceptible people over an area at least as large as a medium size state. Heat advisories from the National Weather Service will be in place with perhaps a small area of heat warnings. Temperatures don’t necessarily have to get as hot as record levels, but humidity levels must be sufficient to produce a heat index above 95°F.”
- Category 2 (Medium Level Heat Wave): Walton defined this as when areas “have been subjected to temperatures and humidity sufficient to produce NWS [National Weather Service] heat advisories and warnings for at least three consecutive days. Temperatures may get close to record levels for a couple of days.”
- Category 3 (Major Level Heat Wave): Walton described this as “severe enough such that a few fatalities are reported. A city in a CAT 3 heat wave would be under a heat emergency for a few days. Many heat records would be either tied or broken.” He put this as the threshold at which a heat wave would earn a fossil fuel corporation name.
- Category 4 (High Level Heat Wave): To reach this level, it would have to be “severe enough to produce over 500 deaths to susceptible people,” in the words of Walton. He has put Heat Wave Chevron in this category.
- Category 5 (Catastrophic Heat Wave): This is where “many all-time temperature records are shattered with thousands of deaths reported.”
Here’s a guess. A convention that names heat waves after major oil companies may not fly with political leaders. So, don’t expect to see something officially named the Marathon Heat Wave no matter how long it lasts.
But having a more official way of categorizing and naming heat waves does make sense. Some other public health threats and disasters such as hurricanes and infectious disease epidemics do already have names that can help people remember them and authorities better deal with them. It’s sort of the same rationale behind why you give names to your children rather than say something like, “Hey, not yet toilet trained, come over here.” Presumably, though, you are not treating your children like a public health disaster.
This all highlights the need for everyone to take heat waves way more seriously. The lack of names and potentially poor choices of names may have belied the true threats of climate change. For example, calling it “global warming” may have made climate change seem more welcome sort of like a cup of cocoa or a comfy blanket. But in actuality the bad health effects of heat waves and other results of climate change can be far-reaching, ranging from more wildfires to more cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to name a recent situation where political leaders have been proactive about preventing major public health problems.