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Impacts of temperature and its variability on mortality in New England


Rapid build-up of greenhouse gases is expected to increase Earth’s mean surface temperature, with unclear effects on temperature variability1,2,3. This makes understanding the direct effects of a changing climate on human health more urgent. However, the effects of prolonged exposures to variable temperatures, which are important for understanding the public health burden, are unclear. Here we demonstrate that long-term survival was significantly associated with both seasonal mean values and standard deviations of temperature among the Medicare population (aged 65+) in New England, and break that down into long-term contrasts between ZIP codes and annual anomalies. A rise in summer mean temperature of 1 °C was associated with a 1.0% higher death rate, whereas an increase in winter mean temperature corresponded to a 0.6% decrease in mortality. Increases in standard deviations of temperature for both summer and winter were harmful. The increased mortality in warmer summers was entirely due to anomalies, whereas it was long-term average differences in the standard deviation of summer temperatures across ZIP codes that drove the increased risk. For future climate scenarios, seasonal mean temperatures may in part account for the public health burden, but the excess public health risk of climate change may also stem from changes of within-season temperature variability.

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Figure 1: Changes in mortality due to seasonal mean temperature and temperature variability across New England, 2003–2008.
Figure 2: Modifications of the effect for annual anomalies of different temperature indices by population density, age, sex and race.
Figure 3: Modifications of the effect for spatial variability in different temperature indices by population density, age, sex and race.


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This study was funded by NIEHS grants R21ES020695 and R21ES024012. This publication was also made possible by USEPA grant (RD-83479801). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the grantee and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USEPA. Further, USEPA does not endorse the purchase of any commercial products or services mentioned in the publication. The authors also thank L. Shen for fruitful discussions.

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J.D.S. designed the research and directed its implementation; A.Z. and I.K. prepared the data set; L.S., P.L. and J.D.S. analysed data; L.S., P.L. and J.D.S. wrote the paper; all authors contributed to revision of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joel D. Schwartz.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Shi, L., Kloog, I., Zanobetti, A. et al. Impacts of temperature and its variability on mortality in New England. Nature Clim Change 5, 988–991 (2015).

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