On California’s Central Coast, there’s a growing urgency to prepare for extreme heat events

Published on
March 4, 2024

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), extremely hot days have become more frequent and more intense in most regions across the world since the 1950s, and the trend is expected to continue. 

Here on the Central Coast of California, we have experienced numerous climate-related events, but we are just now beginning to plan for extreme heat. According to our local Community Environmental Council (CEC), Central Coast counties are heating up. The region has exceeded projections for extreme heat events, and residents are largely unprepared for this new reality. 

Known for its mild comfortable climate, many buildings and homes on the Central Coast — defined for this project as the counties of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo – do not have air conditioning, and there’s been little thought, until recently, about infrastructure and support services to protect residents from high temperatures. There’s an urgent need for preparation and planning, as well as community-wide education to prevent unnecessary health consequences associated with extreme heat. 

Central Coast organizations like the CEC are working to jumpstart the planning process, but there’s much to do. The director of climate resilience for CEC, Em Johnson, recently posted the following call for action.

“In the wake of the hottest July ever documented, the urgency of addressing extreme heat is real. And the alarming reality of climate change is hitting closer than ever to home, as Ventura County recently ranked as the fastest warming county in the contiguous U.S., closely trailed by Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties,” wrote Johnson and co-author David Lebell in a blog post on the organizations’ website. 

Extreme heat events are measured in temperature and duration, and determined by differences in average daily temperatures. On the Central Coast, average daily temperatures vary greatly depending on proximity to the ocean. Over the next decade, inland areas are projected to see significant increases in the number of days above 90 degrees, according to the Public Health Alliance of Southern California. Unusually high temperatures for prolonged periods can be especially dangerous for vulnerable populations like the very old and very young, and those who live or work outdoors. 

In 2022, the state of California published an extreme heat action plan with the goal of making the state and its residents more resilient. 

“Extreme heat ranks among the deadliest of all climate-driven hazards in California, with physical, social, political, and economic factors affecting the capacity of individuals, workers, and communities to adapt, and with the most severe impacts often on communities who experience the greatest social and health inequities,” wrote the authors of the state’s plan. 

For this project, supported by the 2024 California Health Equity Impact Fund, I will focus, in particular, on potential solutions for populations at high-risk during extreme heat events. The Central Coast has a large population of residents aged 65 and older. Older residents are more vulnerable to dehydration and health complications from heat. Also, a large portion of the region is agricultural, with many farmworkers who spend long hours outdoors in some of the warmest locations on the Central Coast. The unhoused population is also vulnerable to heat-related illness due to a lack of shelter throughout the day. 

The good news is that heat-related illness is preventable if one can access cooler surroundings. 

As the need for a plan becomes increasingly important, there are some projects currently in the works. One example is a pilot project in Santa Barbara County for three neighborhood resilience hubs that will become go-to locations during extreme climate events, including heat waves. Neighborhood hubs don’t necessarily address the needs of people living in more rural areas or those who are immobile or without transportation, but they will create a more resilient community, especially if transportation is incorporated into the plan. 

In affluent parts of the Central Coast, wealthy homeowners are adding cooling systems to their properties. But without financial assistance, this is not a viable option for low-income families or those relying on landlords or employers for upgrades. Other solutions like shade trees and window coverings can also make a significant difference, if people are aware of the options and financial support is readily available. 

My reporting project for KCBX Public Radio will examine how the Central Coast is preparing for extreme heat events, and if solutions are available to all residents regardless of income level. Through interviews with climate scientists, public health officials, county representatives, and local residents, I aim to identify equitable solutions and raise awareness about staying healthy during times of intense heat.