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Concordia journalism student explores the impact of extreme heat on health and travel

Isabelle Devi Poirier prepared her report during a summer school program in Thessaloniki, Greece.
October 13, 2023

Two young woman sitting in armchairs and looking at the camera Isabelle Devi Poirier (seated, right): ‘This wasn’t just jetlag — I was overheating.’

Isabelle Devi Poirier is an undergraduate student in the Journalism program. This summer she was one of two Concordia students who attended the Thessaloniki International Media Summer Academy in Greece.

Stepping off the plane, the fiery breath of Cerberus, the multi-headed guardian of Hades’s underworld, hit me hard. Amid the blistering heatwave in Europe named after the hellhound of Greek mythology, I found myself in Thessaloniki, Greece, for a summer school program.

Confident from enduring previous Canadian heatwaves, I figured I could handle the Mediterranean heat. But at the end of the first day of exploring the city, a wave of nausea surged through me. This wasn’t just jetlag — I was overheating.

Thankfully, I managed to quickly return to my hotel in a taxi to cool down and rehydrate, which saved me from the severe effects of a heatstroke on my first day in Greece.

When travelling to different countries, it is important to inform yourself about the local climate and have a plan to stay safe and healthy. This is especially important today with the climate crisis, as a weather disaster can be just around the corner.

On August 8, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that July 2023 was the world’s hottest month ever recorded. Throughout the month, we witnessed temperatures shatter previous records and a plethora of deadly heatwaves sweep the globe.

According to the WMO, the global average temperature is 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. Even seemingly small increases in average global temperatures affect the environment greatly, making extreme weather more intense and more frequent.

“The consequences of what seemed like very small changes are quite profound, and so this summer, what we’ve seen is exactly that,” says Alexandra Lesnikowski, assistant professor of geography, planning and environment and principal investigator at the Concordia Climate Change Adaptation Lab.

“We’re seeing increases in average temperatures, we’re seeing changes in average precipitation, we’re seeing changes in extreme temperatures and extreme precipitation patterns, weather events like hurricanes and cyclones, and ice storms here in Montreal,” she notes.

“What’s happening now is the consequences of climate change are playing out around us, and they’re happening more quickly and more intensely.”

‘It is possible we will see phenomena amplified’

On July 4, the WMO declared the onset of El Niño, a natural source of climate variability that comes from shifts in Pacific Ocean temperatures and trade winds that create a ripple effect around the world. El Niño is what makes some years hotter or colder than other years, but we are now seeing it in the context of a changing climate.

“It is possible that we will see those types of phenomena amplified,” Lesnikowski explains. “One expectation is that we’ll see more El Niño effects as a consequence of human-caused climate change than we would in the absence of it.”

Being able to adapt to the changing climate will depend on how quickly we can decarbonize to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s targets of halving emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2050.

“If we’re able to reach those targets, it makes it more possible to adapt to climate change. The more we delay and fail to meet those targets, the more we run into the very likely reality that there will be limits on how much we can adapt,” Lesnikowski says.

The impact of climate change varies among individuals and communities based on factors like poverty or wealth, and people’s ability to adapt to these changes also depends on various factors.

“Countries that are very wealthy like Canada have a very high capacity, in theory, to adapt to the impacts of climate change,” Lesnikowski adds. “But still, we are struggling with catastrophic flooding, heatwaves and forest fires that are having an incredibly damaging effect on our communities and are also having a very harmful effect on our health and our well-being.”

Heat effects

According to the World Health Organization, exposure to excessive heat has a wide range of physiological impacts on the human body, “often amplifying existing conditions and resulting in premature death and disability.”

Rapid spikes in temperature hinder the body’s ability to regulate heat, leading to various heat-related illnesses including heat cramps, exhaustion and hyperthermia. These heat-induced illnesses are hard to determine, as fatalities and hospitalizations can manifest on the day of extreme heat exposure or a few days later. And even the slightest deviation from typical seasonal temperatures correlates with heightened sickness and mortality.

“As the external heat increases, there’s the physiologic adaptation of your body, and the body is really well made and its thermoregulation is really efficient up to a certain degree,” says François de Champlain, emergency physician and medical director for the Montreal Marathon.

“One of the first mechanisms to decrease the temperature is sweating, but this will work up to a certain degree, and it also relies on the fact that you’re drinking enough water and electrolytes.”

However, the sweating mechanism varies in individuals throughout their life and can also vary depending on certain medications and medical conditions that impede thermoregulation, making people more susceptible to heat-related illness.

The body’s core temperature normally sits around 37°C, and “when the core temperature starts being above 39°C, you start having a downward spiral where you’re having more and more heatstroke symptoms. And 40 to 40.5°C is really the definition of a heatstroke,” Champlain explains.

He adds that above 40°C is where all the organs start to fail. “If you do a blood test, you’ll see that the liver function tests shoot up, the muscle damage shoots up, there is an effect on the heart as well. So essentially the body and the organs can’t tolerate the heat, the brain gets obviously confused and you can have a seizure, coma and death.”

Once someone’s core temperature gets too high, “the goal then is really to cool the temperature of that person very quickly, within 15 to 20 minutes, half an hour maximum. And for this, we use really extreme measures, such as putting someone in a cold bath with 4°C ice water,” Champlain says.

“As soon as people start to experience light symptoms such as headache, exhaustion, not feeling well, nausea, these types of things, it’s a marker that you really have to try to get to a cooler, air conditioning type of environment.”

Caution while travelling

It takes the body about 10 days to acclimatize to a warmer environment, thus tourists are at a higher risk of suffering from the heat than a local.

When travelling, people tend to think that they’re just jetlagged and need to sleep. “But actually, what you need is to cool down and drink more water and electrolytes,” Champlain advises.

While abroad, people should be frequently hydrating, even small amounts every 15 minutes, taking breaks in air conditioning, avoiding strenuous exercise.

If access to air-conditioning is limited, Champlain suggests bringing some sort of spray with ice water in it to help cool down: “This, with the wind or a fan, will work as a cooling mechanism through evaporation. So the mist goes onto your body and the fan will work on removing the surface heat from your body to evacuate.”

Many steps can be taken to ensure your safety when travelling to a new and unexpected climate. Valorie Crooks is a Canada Research Chair in Health Service Geographies and professor of geography at Simon Fraser University who specializes in medical tourism.

She encourages people to ensure that they have travel health insurance and that they’re familiar with how their travel health insurance would actually cover them if, for example, they developed heatstroke or some other heat-related illness.

“We need to acknowledge the plan in advance,” Crooks says. “You need to be prepared to have a backup plan to know what would happen if that earthquake happened, if that fire happened, if that heat dome happened, if that extreme heat event happened.”

For those travelling with pre-existing health conditions that make them sensitive to heat, it’s crucial they carefully review their travel health insurance policy to understand coverage limitations. Consulting their family physician before travelling abroad is advised to plan for necessary precautions while overseas.

“Many people think that they’re going to have travel insurance coverage for X, Y and Z and then they realize that something is excluded, because of maybe the time of year that they went, maybe because of a pre-existing condition or maybe because a type of weather is expected,” Crooks points out.

“And so therefore the person should have their insurance plan accommodated for that in advance.”

She also encourages people to think through a plan to support their general needs and comfort while abroad, and to know what the entry point of the health system is in the country they are visiting. This can look like calling an emergency phone line or accessing the equivalent of what Canadians consider walk-in clinics.

“So if you do become sick, if you do even require care that may not involve admission to a hospital, then you want to make sure that you have access to what you think you’re going to need at your fingertips,” Crooks says. “Because we have seen during crisis events, especially those related to the climate crisis, that sometimes the availability of supplies will become limited because people are out purchasing them.”

‘Being ready helps us tackle challenges head on’

With temperatures soaring and climate changes affecting travel destinations, being prepared is crucial. My own experience facing intense heat in a foreign land made me realize how important it is to stay safe.

This year, we’ve seen global temperatures break records, causing deadly heatwaves and extreme weather events. To travel smartly, it’s essential to know about local climates, have the right travel insurance and be ready for unexpected situations.

As we face changing climates during our journeys, being ready and resourceful helps us tackle challenges head on.

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