Coaches and athletic officials in Texas would be wise to consider the risks students face as the climate changes, according to a study by researchers at Rice University.
A 22-question survey led by climate scientist Sylvia Dee received responses from 224 Texas coaches and officials, 51 percent of whom coach football. The results showed that while many are aware of the risks of outdoor workouts during the summer, not all are on board with adjusting for hotter weather. This is a concern, as climate change is already making Texas’ summers hotter.
For example, a 2021 report from the Texas State Climatologist’s office said Texans should expect the number of 100-degree days each summer to nearly double by 2036 compared to the average numbers from 2001-2020.
“It’s one thing to send out a survey, but we need to think ahead and have the tough conversations about what to do if it’s too hot to play football in the summer in the near future (or even now),” said Dee. “I want to hope that just receiving this survey got these athletic staff thinking about the problem.”
The survey of hundreds of coaches and athletic directors at Texas high schools, colleges and universities revealed that most are aware of the dangers of intensive workouts when temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit can put athletes at risk of heat-related illnesses.
Many are keeping a close eye on damaging heat, humidity and wet bulb temperatures and will adjust schedules as necessary. Surprisingly, some coaches indicated they do not acknowledge climate change or its implications for the health of athletes.
The study relied on simulations developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research to compare temperature, heat index, humidity and wet bulb temperature in Texas over two key periods: 1976-2000 and 2076-2100. The projections incorporated estimates for high- and low-carbon emissions scenarios through the end of the century.
The analysis showed that in the future, heat index values will regularly exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Dallas and 113 degrees in Houston, Austin and San Antonio – even in the lower-emissions scenario. In West and North Texas cities, maximum heat index values could be 30 degrees higher than they are now.
Wet bulb temperature is the temperature of a parcel of air at 100 percent humidity. This is the point at which we can no longer sweat to cool our bodies. According to one study, even the healthiest people would not survive a wet bulb temperature of 95 degrees for more than several hours in the shade. The wet bulb temperature is most important to consider for heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and exertional heat illness.
All survey respondents are aware of heat warnings and 88 percent indicated they factor those warnings into decisions on whether to cancel practice. However, only 54 percent take humidity into account, suggesting there could be a lack of understanding on how humidity affects temperature.
The researchers noted that “athletic staff placed heavier emphasis on and were more concerned about the impact of temperature rather than climate change.” Overall, 30 percent of respondents were “not concerned at all” about the effects of climate change.
There are state-level guidelines that discuss the risks of heat illness for various athletic activities. “But there’s certainly no acknowledgement of increasing risk in the future in any of these documents,” said Dee.
“It’s not surprising that it’s going to get really hot. But it was a little frightening that, in relation to the physiological limit, there’s a lot of evidence that it’s already too hot for student athletes to safely play sports outdoors.”
The research team is interested in a follow-up collaboration that goes beyond the athletic field.
“A lot will rely heavily on our colleagues in the social sciences and humanities to think about how we communicate the risks to people in a way that will help them change their minds.”
The study is published in the journal GeoHealth.
By Katherine Bucko, Earth.com Staff Writer