Experts say the health effects related to the steady and prolonged warming of the planet will force public health officials to take an even greater role in addressing the impact of climate change in the coming years.
According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 7,400 heat-related deaths in the U.S. between 1999 and 2010, with 300 people dying in 2001 alone.
Last year was the warmest on record, with global temperatures rising significantly over the record set in 2014, according to an analysis released Wednesday by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This marked the second straight year global temperatures reached record highs. Scientists said the odds are good that 2016 could surpass last year as well, which would be the first time since record-keeping began in the late 1800s that the record was broken three years in a row.
Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies said temperatures in 2015 were the highest “by far” ever recorded, increasing by 0.29 degrees Fahrenheit over 2014 and averaging 1.62 degrees above the average during the 20th century.
Scientists have warned that the warming climate is increasing the number of extreme weather-related events in recent years such as heat waves, drought, floods and blizzards. While there is not enough evidence to support a causal link between all extreme weather events and rising atmospheric temperatures, a number of occurrences, such as an increase in the number of extremely hot days over the past decade can be attributed to the overall rise in global temperatures.
Such events are of growing concern to public health experts, who expect an increase in the number of related conditions, such as food insecurity and a rise in vector-borne infectious diseases.
“It's a real challenge,” said Dr. Robert Lawrence, professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I have colleagues who are doing this kind of work who are quite concerned about the continued spread of territories that now are welcoming hosts to vectors that used to not be present.”
Lawrence said climate change was not a likely contributor to the emergence of the Zika virus in the Americas over the past year. He believes the virus, which is passed along by mosquitoes, was the result of increased international travel over the past decade.
According to Peter LaPuma, associate professor of environmental and occupational Health at George Washington University, diseases once common in warmer climates such as those found in Mexico and Texas have migrated north as a result of climate change.
“These kinds of issues will increase in frequency and duration as climate change gets worse,” LaPuma said. “Every region of the world will have health consequences related to climate change." LaPuma warns that some region's healthcare infrastructure might not be able to handle the impact.
Some experts have argued climate change has the possibility of exacerbating many chronic conditions particularly among low-income populations where social factors such as a lack of stable housing and steady access to healthy food already take a toll on health outcomes.
Schmidt said a major driver of warming global temperatures remains the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of the continued burning of fossil fuels. He said until action is taken to significantly limit greenhouse gas emissions, such record temperatures will continue for years.
“We're really looking at a long-term trend, and this is just a symptom of that long-term trend,” Schmidt said. “The factors that are causing this long-term trend are continuing to accelerate.”