Data shows that northern Michigan residents are most vulnerable to rising temperatures

It’s been a busy summer for air conditioning installations in northern Michigan.

Brian Williams, owner of Brian’s Heating and Cooling in Cheboygan, has noticed a jump in people looking to install units.

“When COVID hit, a lot of people working remotely from the state’s southern region moved to their cottages and lake homes, and they wanted the comforts of their own home,” Williams said. “However, locals are getting it more too. It used to be that you would want to eat it four or five times in the summer, but that number is rising.”

In many homes in the upper part of the state — even in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula — air conditioning was not a concern because temperatures did not traditionally reach the extremes seen in the South. But temperatures this summer have reached all-time highs around the world, and experts say the trend is likely to continue.

But as the state warms, experts fear that those who live in areas that are often not accustomed to heat will be more vulnerable to extreme heat. Across the country, data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that nearly 1 in 4 people nationwide are socially vulnerable to heat, struggling with issues including low-quality housing, financial hardship and poor access to transportation.

A data analysis by The Detroit News found that Michigan’s number is about the same as the national number. More than 22% of Michigan residents have three or more risk factors for heat exposure. It’s worse in some northern counties — Census Bureau data show that nearly 2 in 5 Lake County residents, for example, are particularly vulnerable, meaning they face three or more risk factors. In counties across the northern part of the state — Mackinac in the Upper Peninsula, and Alcona, Oscoda, Montmorency, Arenac and Gladwin in the Lower Peninsula — more than one in three people are particularly at risk.

The heat is not consistent in most parts of the UP, but recently, on Labor Day, temperatures in Marquette reached 95 degrees. That mark broke the previous September 4 record of 88 degrees set in 1999, but it also broke the September monthly record of 93 degrees set on Sept. 9, 2002, according to the National Weather Service.

Experts say tackling the problem will require more than just air conditioning. But it may not be easy.

Why is thermoelasticity important?

Researchers are increasingly studying how people are able to recover from natural disasters based on the resources they have access to. For example, people who live in solid, well-heated homes are more likely to be able to weather a major winter storm comfortably, especially if they also have enough money to repair their homes afterward.

But heat can be different from many other disasters. They can last for days or weeks without any relief, and often do not occur at the same time as major rainstorms or other potential disasters. When it’s relentlessly hot day and night, and your body never has a chance to cool down, it has a hard time coping, said Patricia Solis, executive director of the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at Arizona State University, a team that studies vulnerability. And flexibility.

KER, as it is commonly called, helped build the Census Bureau’s thermal elasticity estimates.

“The heat feels completely different. We don’t see the big thundercloud coming our way,” Solis said. “For us, heat usually looks like a nice, sunny day. It’s invisible, but it affects us all, and it affects us all in different ways depending not only on your vulnerability but also your exposure. Understanding that can help us build our resilience.”

It may not make sense at first that the northern part of the state, where people joke that it snows 10 months of the year, would be particularly heat-prone. But as temperatures rise and people stay warmer for longer, people who are not used to the heat are likely to feel the effects more and more.

Residence is one of the most important factors that may make a person vulnerable. If people cannot stay cool in their homes, they will suffer during hot periods. For example, areas with a large number of manufactured homes or older housing will have a greater number of people exposed to heat.

In many older homes, central air conditioning is not necessarily standard. Thermal insulation may also be weaker. The cost of installing central air conditioning can range from $3,882 for smaller systems to $7,905 for larger or upgraded systems, according to HomeAdvisor. Thermal insulation repair can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the extent of the upgrades required.

This is one of the biggest issues in combating the high temperatures that are becoming more common in the Upper Peninsula, said Emily Leach, Marquette County’s senior planner and chair of the Marquette County Climate Adaptation Task Force.

“The housing stock in Marquette County and central UP is very old. A lot of it comes from the mining boom,” Leach told The News. “Nearly a quarter of the buildings in Marquette were built in 1939 or earlier. You have to think about how things have changed, how materials have changed, and how code standards have changed. We have 23,000 housing units built before obtaining permits.”

But it’s not just Marquette. The housing stock is older in much of the northern part of the state. Older residents tend to live in higher concentrations in the north, The News reported, which could add more difficulty to making repairs that would make a home more comfortable.

Another important factor contributing to potential vulnerability in the north is transportation, Leach said. Someone who has to wait outside in high temperatures for a bus or ride is going to have a hard time.

“We need to improve our public transportation in many different ways. First and foremost, we need more roads and better access not only to them but to information about them,” Leach said. “Our local public transportation group doesn’t even have an app. “

In rural areas, it can take a long time between buses, she said. But people need options to get around. In Marquette, Leach said, 6% of households don’t have access to a car — meaning 6% of people need to use the public transit system, which is limited to business hours. By comparison, a 2016 report prepared for the Michigan Department of Transportation found that the number of households statewide without a car was just over 5%.

“It’s not easy to get to,” Leach said. “In terms of heat exposure, people looking to use public transportation may have to wait in the heat and sun for longer than their bodies can handle.”

What can be done to improve thermoelasticity?

Michigan has unique opportunities to turn things around, especially since the state is described as a kind of “climate haven” for those looking to escape more extreme weather.

Air conditioning would be a short-term solution, although the cost may be prohibitive for some residents. In older homes without ductwork, central air conditioning can be very expensive, said Williams, the Cheboygan installer. Even smaller units known as “mini-splits” that can typically cool a room or two can be expensive.

“There are a ton of boilers here,” Williams said. “Most people have never felt the need for air conditioning, but now they are amazed at how much they need it.”

But experts say that in the long term, it’s important to treat the cause of fever whenever possible, as well as the symptoms people experience as a result. Leach pointed to options like intentionally planting native plants to help keep temperatures lower indoors and outdoors.

Improving public transportation could take cars off the road, which could also lead to lower temperatures. But in less densely populated rural areas, the cost of these systems can be expensive. Critics say mass transit is rarely self-sustaining and would require subsidies from taxpayers.

But experts say the biggest and most effective step to help people be more resilient to heat is improving housing stock.

“What we’ve needed here for a long time is good heating, because in the summer we close the windows during the day and open them at night. But now it’s not that cold at night anymore,” Leach said. “We’ve been talking about heat gain for decades, but now it’s here. “It’s happening.”

What Leach would like to see is a focus on those who are already most vulnerable to heat, such as low-income or elderly populations. Local or state programs for roof repair, structure sealing, etc. can make a big difference.

She said her county has a repair program, but the problem is capacity. Finding the materials needed to implement projects, let alone contractors to do the work, is difficult. Leach said improving housing stock should be the first priority to keep people healthy.

“There are other things we can do now to make changes as well,” she said. “Check out your neighbors and see what they need. If you’re trying to spruce up your home, check with your city or county to see if there are programs available.

Arizona’s Solis said she believes the focus should be on helping the most vulnerable people first, something she compares to running into a fire to help put it out. This means creating shelter for homeless people and “changing the trend” to make heat-ready housing available to everyone.

In practical terms, this might look like improved insulation that would help air conditioning units cool homes more efficiently. This could mean cooling centers that many cities already have available when high temperatures arrive. This might mean planting more trees to create more shade. It can be as simple as getting more information about what can help beat the heat for those who need it most.

“Sometimes things are hidden a little bit. Awareness can go a long way,” Solis said. “I call on people to check on their seniors and family members when they see heat alerts.

“If we can help those around us, we can make a big difference,” she added.

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