Research and data

After the Storm: Extreme weather research at BUSPH highlights the health impacts of Atlantic basin hurricanes

Hurricanes top the list as the most destructive extreme weather event. Human-caused climate change has the potential to make hurricanes even more damaging. Not only are hurricanes likely to continue to increase in severity and intensity, but they’ve also been linked to a host of negative health impacts including injuries, asthma, and/or mental health. Research at the intersection of climate change, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, and health can help raise awareness on the multitude of problems presented by severe storms and develop interventions to reduce these negative impacts moving forward. 

The breadth of hurricane research has been greatly improved by a new data tool developed by Brooke Anderson at Colorado State University. Anderson’s comprehensive ‘hurricaneexposure” R package now allows researchers to analyze the impacts of multiple storms across the country using a centralized data source instead of focusing on a single extreme weather event at a time. For example, Darren Suna post-doctoral researcher in Boston University School of Public Health’s (BUSPH) growing Program on Climate and Healthused this new tool to study the impacts of tropical cyclones on the risk of preterm birth. Dr. Sun and his team found that exposure to hurricanes during pregnancy was positively associated with higher risk of preterm birth, especially in vulnerable communities. 

Dr. Francesca Dominici, PhD, professor of biostatistics at the Harvard Chan School and co-author of the project believes, “the development of environmental health data research platforms that provide a one-point access to data (like the tool developed by Anderson) can be very powerful, allowing extreme weather research in directions that were not possible before.

Other leading researchers across the country have also used this new tool to comprehensively evaluate the health impacts of hurricanes. For example, a recent publication in Nature Communications by researchers from Columbia University, Harvard University, and Colorado State University, used the “hurricaneexposure” R package and data from 70 million hospitalizations over six years to produce a comprehensive estimate of how hurricanes impacted cause-specific hospitalizations in individuals 65 or older across the country.

Since each hurricane can have unique impacts, and health data isn’t always available across large geographic areas, there is still a need to learn as much as possible from individual extreme weather storms. For example, Dean Sandro Galea and Greg Cohen of BUSPH have documented pronounced mental health concerns following severe storms such as Hurricane Sandy and the large unmet need for mental health care in the years following traumatic extreme weather disasters. 

Join the BUSPH Program on Climate and Health and Colorado State University on April 14, 2021 for Climate Change, Hurricanes & Health, a panel discussion continuing this conversation and addressing the influence of climate change on tropical cyclones and subsequent health outcomes in the Atlantic Basin and beyond. We’ll hear about the changing characteristics of hurricanes, novel techniques in measuring hurricanes’ health risks in different populations, and multidisciplinary approaches to addressing the hurricane and health relationship.

Speakers: Andrea Schumacher, CIRA/CSU; James Done, NCAR; Rachel Netherly, Harvard University; Kate Weinberger, University of British Columbia; Robbie Parks, Columbia University; and Greg Cohen, Boston University. 

Devin O’Donnell is an MPH candidate at the Boston University School of Public Health focusing on community health and human rights. She is interested in the intersection of climate change and health, more specifically how community mobilization and cohesion are necessary for mitigation and adaptation efforts. Devin is working with the BUSPH Program on Climate and Health and the American Red Cross in these realms. In her free time, you can find Devin reliving her bakery days or exploring the nearby trails.

Quinn Adams is a Climate and Health MS student at the Boston University School of Public Health and is an incoming BUSPH Environmental Health PhD student. She is interested in understanding the influence of climate change and extreme weather events on human health outcomes, with a particular interest in the impact on emerging infectious diseases and disease transmission. Previously, she held positions working on environmental health issues at the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) and the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) in Washington, DC.

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For continued reading, check out our look at building healthier communities to address the effects of climate change.  

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