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Chronically underestimated: a reassessment of US heat waves using the extended heat index


The heat index, or apparent temperature, was never defined for extreme heat and humidity, leading to the widespread adoption of a polynomial extrapolation designed by the United States National Weather Service. Recently, however, the heat index has been extended to all combinations of temperature and humidity, presenting an opportunity to reassess past heat waves. Here, three-hourly temperature and humidity are used to evaluate the extended heat index over the contiguous United States during the years 1984-2020. It is found that the 99.9th percentile of the daily maximum heat index is highest over the Midwest. Identifying and ranking heat waves by the spatially integrated exceedance of that percentile, the Midwest once again stands out as home to the most extreme heat waves, including the top-ranked July 2011 and July 1995 heat waves. The extended heat index can also be used to evaluate the physiological stress induced by heat and humidity. It is found that the most extreme Midwest heat waves tax the cardiovascular system with a skin blood flow that is elevated severalfold, approaching the physiological limit. These effects are not captured by the National Weather Service's polynomial extrapolation, which also underestimates the heat index by as much as 10 °C (20 °F) during severe heat waves.

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