Chicago, Illinois Adapts to Improve Extreme Heat Preparedness

Chicago, Illinois Adapts to Improve Extreme Heat Preparedness

Equity & Justice

When people are exposed to extreme heat and minimal air movement for prolonged periods of time, their health and safety is at risk. Depending on the intensity and duration of high temperatures, as well as a population’s preparedness and infrastructure, heat waves can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, swelling of the limbs, heat rashes, dehydration, and can contribute to blood clotting. Extreme heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States, and heat waves can trigger heart attacks and strokes.   

Although extreme heat events pose a threat to all people, they are particularly dangerous to older populations and children, as their bodies are less able to adapt to heat or handle the stress of high heat. People with preexisting respiratory, cardiovascular, diabetic, and chronic conditions are also particularly vulnerable, along with lower-income communities who often do not have access to well insulated housing or air conditioning systems. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention also suggests higher risk among Black communities. According to the National Black Caucus Foundation, there were 50 percent higher mortality rates among non-Hispanic Black people than non-Hispanic white people during the 1995 Chicago heat wave. 

Project Summary

In 1995, Chicago experienced an extreme heat event that led to the deaths of several hundred people over the course of five days. This event prompted the city to strengthen and update its heat emergency response system. Recognizing that heat waves are expected to increase in Chicago due to climate change, supported by the Chicago Climate Impacts Report, the city adopted a comprehensive set of actions to reduce deaths from extreme heat events.

Chicago’s approach focuses on community preparedness with particular attention to vulnerable populations. Since effective public outreach is a time and resource intensive process, Chicago worked with the Field Museum, a world-renowned museum and a leader in science education and engagement, to develop an outreach program that targeted neighborhoods vulnerable to climate change. This partnership engaged the local community to increase awareness of neighborhood vulnerability and identify how residents could reduce the impact of climate exacerbated extreme heat events. This outreach effort has worked to complement traditional disaster response actions that Chicago promoted after the 1995 heat wave.

How did they do it?
ActionApplicable Resources

Identified current disaster response needs for extreme heat resiliency

  • Chicago adopted disaster responses including: expanding Notify Chicago, the city’s text and email emergency notification system; identified (e.g., public libraries) or established cooling centers; set up a call “311” program to have officials conduct well-being checks for those who may need additional assistance during events such as the elderly or infirm; and conducted disaster preparedness and response trainings.

Assessed citywide vulnerability to future climate extreme heat conditions

  • The city assessed future vulnerability using an "analog city analysis".
  • Chicago identified the most vulnerable residents in their community (e.g., elderly, young) in order to best target heat outreach efforts.

Adopted adaptation strategies that targets extreme heat vulnerabilities and support vulnerable populations

  • Partnered with the Chicago Field Museum to conduct tailored outreach to at-risk communities and neighborhoods to increase understanding of current and expected future changes. Relating future climate norms to a previous extreme heat event (in this case, the 1995 heat wave) helped the climate risk resonate with the residents. Chicago identified urban heat island areas that would be worsened by climate change and used this information to target green infrastructure and heat island mitigation efforts.
  • The EPA’s Urban Heat Island includes information, resources, and strategies to mitigate the impacts of the heat island effect on communities.

Similar Case Studies

  • Extreme heat events and other weather extremes can disproportionately impact at-risk or vulnerable communities. To see how Chicago has used green infrastructure to both reduce the impact of future extreme heat events and reduce stormwater runoff during extreme precipitation events, view the case study on Chicago's green infrastructure
  • For another case on how a large municipality has adapted to prepare for extreme heat events, view the case study on how New York City Assesses Extreme Heat.