A Caribbean climatologist says that while the Caribbean is best known for having wet, dry and hurricane seasons, a little known fact is that the region also has a distinct heat season.
Cédric Van Meerbeeck, climatologist at the Barbados-based Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) says that since about 1995, the Caribbean has had a distinct heat season which lasts from about May to October and is forecast to be more intense this year that the last two years.
“But the heat season is something that didn’t happen in the past. Yes, people feel more comfortable and sometimes even cold around Christmas time and you know that it gets hotter towards September. But it’s not really common knowledge that there is a six-month period that noticeably warmer than the other part of the year and that is May to October.
“And during that heat season, you find that the levels of heat discomfort and heat stress [increases] so that’s impacting your health, also the health of some animals,” Van Meerbeeck said, adding this has implication for comfort levels as well as major sectors in the region, such as tourism and agriculture.
He told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) on the side-line of the Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) that while the heat season peaks in September, the region has its most heat waves between August and October.
“Heat waves might not look as extreme as they are in some desert areas or some part of the United States and other regions. However, they do impact us because mostly that’s also the time of the year when the humidity is high,” Van Meerbeeck explained.
“When humidity is high, your body doesn’t cool as effectively as when the air is quite dry and so you feel more heat stress even though the temperature does not increase immensely,” Van Meerbeeck said, urging people to stay as cool as possible, especially from August onward.
The climatologist said that for the first half of the heat season, the air is still relatively dry; therefore, the temperatures are not necessarily so uncomfortable.
“But it is really that second part of the heat season that we want to warn against. Keep cool; don’t go in the sun in the middle of the day; seek shade, seek ventilation in your homes.
“If you have an AC, make sure you run the AC while you sleep so that your brain and your body can recover better and that you can function normal in the face of the heat,” the climatologist advised.
“Last year, we were quite fortunate that there were not many heat waves. It was not that brutal. A comparable season would have been 2016 when we really had a lot of heat between August and October.”
Van Meerbeeck said the cause of the higher temperature is the rising temperatures of the ocean, which releases heat into the atmosphere during the heat season.
“It doesn’t change the weather much from day to day, but over longer periods of time, it does affect the amount of energy that is in the atmosphere and therefore that is the temperature that you feel,” the climatologist said, adding this is definitely linked to climate change.
“And this is one of the clearest links that we observe in the Caribbean beside sea level rise. The increasing temperature now means that even though we didn’t have a heat season outside of maybe August to October in the past, now you find that heat waves actually occur for a longer period of time every year in the warmer years particularly.
“But now, in the cooler years, you now have heat waves. That didn’t used to be the case up until about 1995. It’s really something recent, where the trend of temperate going up with climate change is really affecting the heat level that we have in the season.”
He said this has implication for agriculture and fisheries, especially the livestock subsector and fish, especially in the northern Caribbean, that are sensitive to the heating of the sea surface.
“But for livestock, it’s important to also provide cooling for them. For us that is important. Maybe ethically that’s one thing but also in terms of our food security, our protein stock really comes from chicken and chicken are amongst the most sensitive animals to excessive heat especially broilers.”
Van Meerbeeck said it is a good practice to keep poultry birds cool “so you can to make sure that your chicken stock does not reduce and does not experience that heat stress which leads to less protein being available at a reasonable cost for us”.
As regard tourism, the climatologist said that heat is not that much of a problem as long as awareness is built with tourists.
“But they should really do their best to keep cool whenever they can, stay hydrated, seek the shade, seek well-ventilated places; if you go in the sun, don’t go in the middle of the day,” Van Meerbeeck said, adding that hotels should also remind tourists to stay cool.