Colorado’s Complicated Relationship with Heat-Related Illness
At first glance, you might not think of Colorado as a high-risk place for heat stroke and other heat-related illness. While it may not compare to some of the hottest and most humid places in the United States, the unique geography and climate of the Rocky Mountain region puts us at higher risk for heat stroke and heat-related illnesses than many people assume. And that alone is dangerous. Here’s what you should know about the local risks associated with heat-related illness.
Altitude and Elevation Change
The biggest difference about Colorado is the altitude. As most people know, the higher you go into the mountains, the more the temperature drops. Typically, there’s a 30-40 degree difference or more between the temperature along the Front Range and those in the highest elevations of the Rockies. This can lower your immediate risk of heat-related illness, but higher altitudes also increase the risk of dehydration and delayed risk of heat stroke. Packing plenty of water and/or a reliable water filtration system is one of the essential planning steps for going into the Rocky Mountains.
Moreover, with less atmosphere for the sun’s rays to go through and the natural chill in the mountain area disguising the early signs, it’s easier to get sunburn in the mountains. Sunburned skin is less capable of helping the rest of your body cool down, adding to the risk of heat stroke. Worse still, a layperson may mistakenly attribute the early signs of heat exhaustion to the sunburn. In a worst-case scenario, an individual trying to do too much may dehydrate themselves by spending the morning and early afternoon in the mountains, then return to the hot temperatures of the valley where they continue to exert themselves with exercise, sports, or yard work.
Aside from moderating your activity and staying indoors during the worst of the heat wave, staying hydrated is the best thing you can do. Even then, you can’t simply drink excessive amounts of water and assume you’ll be okay. In fact, drinking too much water too quickly can lower the amount of sodium in your blood to dangerous levels.
Remote Locations and a Culture of Individualism
With so many people in the state clustered along the Front Range, there are huge swaths of remote land, both in the mountains and on the eastern plains. These beautiful and colorful landscapes bring a lot of people to Colorado, as does the altitude and opportunities for endurance training. These untouched landscapes and rigorous training regimens also speak to lifestyle and occupational risks associated with heat stroke. Whether you’re a mountaineer, cyclist, hunter, or some other kind of nomadic soul, being alone in a remote location already carries some inherent risk. This is especially true for out-of-town visitors who may be unaccustomed to higher altitudes.
This danger is more apparent during the winter with its freezing temperatures, but you should also be cautious and prepared when you’re active and alone on a hot summer day. Given the demands of agricultural businesses, ranchers and farmers may also be at high risk, especially smaller operations in which individuals are more likely to be off by themselves and engaged in strenuous outdoor activities for prolonged periods of time. This is why organizations like The Clymb, Colorado Hunter Ed, and AG America have dedicated pages to help their audiences understand the risk of heat stroke.
An Environment that’s Changing Faster than Public Policy
Climate change and rising heat exhaustion cases in Colorado have been in the news for many years. A more recent report from 2016 puts Colorado among the top ten states for fastest warming summers. It’s not just the temperatures, either. Warmer air is, on average, able to hold more moisture. Although the Front Range is known for its dry air, climate change also tends to create more humid days and a higher heat index. With a population not acclimated to more humid conditions, this is just one more drop in the bucket when it comes to the risk of heat stroke in Colorado. Use the heat index chart to help you easily recognize the relative risk of heat exhaustion on any given day.
To make things worse, the state and civil authorities have been slow to adopt policies to mitigate the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke in vulnerable populations. The Korey Stringer Institute ranks Colorado last for high school sports safety policies. The Colorado High School Activities Association disputes the ranking, but it’s worth noting that the state’s poor evaluation was due in large part to the absence of heat stroke prevention policies.