Skip to main content

More Homeless People Are Dying of Hypothermia in Los Angeles Than in New York. Is Climate Change a Factor?

In Los Angeles, a city known for its sunshine and mild temperatures, more homeless people died of hypothermia last year than in New York City and San Francisco combined. As 18 trillion gallons of rain have fallen on California so far this month and some areas of Southern California have felt temperatures in the low 30s, the Los Angeles Times reports, advocates worry that the weather this winter will cause more fatalities among Los Angeles County's over 50,000 homeless people.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing the normal body temperature of around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to fall below 95 degrees. This can lead to heart and respiratory system failure and eventually death. It is caused by exposure to cold temperatures and cold water, and commonly occurs when a person stays out in the cold for too long, doesn't have appropriate clothing for the weather, or isn't able to change out of wet clothes and move to a warm, dry location.

Even at a temperature of 50 degrees, your body can drop to a low temperature in wet and windy weather. This month, L.A. has seen several days of wet weather with low temperatures from the mid 40s to low 50s.

L.A. County's winter shelter program offers additional beds from December through March, and many L.A. County homeless shelters have offered extended hours during storms to offer warm, dry places to spend the night.

"The number of emergency beds for our homeless neighbors has increased each year for the last three years," L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's spokesman Alex Comisar told the Times, "and we're doing more outreach than ever before to bring people inside during inclement weather."

Still, as of 2018, 75 percent of L.A. County's homeless population was unsheltered and at risk of exposure to cold, wet, windy weather. And that weather is likely to continue.

Research by scientists at the University of California–Los Angeles shows that climate change will lead to even more of the whiplash from dry to wet weather that California has seen this year and in recent years. A warming atmosphere and warming oceans are causing increased precipitation in winter—already the wettest time of year in the region—and could cause even less precipitation in the spring through fall (which could also lead to a rise in deaths due to hyperthermia, caused by abnormally high body temperatures, as dry heat waves increase in the summer). The researchers also predict that, over the next 40 years, California will be 300 to 400 percent more likely to experience a prolonged storm system similar to the one that caused massive flooding in 1862.