Why is Singapore Breaking Temperature Records This Summer?

May 21, 2024

In today’s evolving climate change narrative, Singapore’s increasing temperature stands out as a clear signal of the intensifying impact of global warming. Over the past decade, meteorological data reveal a disturbing trend too — it is that Singapore has witnessed temperatures nudging upward, setting alarming new records each successive year. This temperature rise is a manifestation of broader global climatic shifts driven by an accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which Singapore is not immune to despite its small size. In cities like Singapore, increased greenhouse gas emissions also amplify the urban heat island effect when urban regions experience much warmer temperatures than their rural counterparts due to human activities and dense infrastructure.

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As Singapore grapples with these rising temperatures, the implications stretch far beyond mere discomfort, and they challenge the resilience of its infrastructure and the health of Singaporeans. How is the nation adapting to these relentless climatic changes, and what measures can Singaporeans take to mitigate the impact of these changes amid this crisis? To find answers to these questions, we must explore innovative strategies and crucial adjustments to thrive in an increasingly inhospitable environment. Let’s delve into a few such strategies that could redefine urban living in Singapore in a way that sets a global benchmark in sustainability and liveability.

The Impact of Heat: Challenges Faced by Singaporeans

The impact of an unprecedented increase in temperature in a country like Singapore, which typically has a tropical climate, is profound and multifaceted. Climate change-related challenges encompass several health risks and socio-economic issues here. They also highlight the urgent need for comprehensive and adaptive strategies. Here are some problems Singaporeans have been facing during this scorching summer.

Escalating UV Index and Dermatological Risks

In Singapore, the relentless rise in temperatures has precipitated a significant surge in the UV index, and it elevates dermatological risks to unprecedented levels. This situation poses more than mere discomfort — it is a severe health hazard with impacts like:

Skin Burns and Sunburns: Singapore's near-equatorial location means it experiences intense solar radiation year-round. This is now coupled with higher UV levels, which significantly increase the occurrence of painful and potentially harmful sunburns. Research conducted by the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health found that most Singaporeans do not adopt sun protection practices. Specifically, only about 23.9% of residents reported using sunscreen to shield themselves from ultraviolet rays.

Accelerated Skin Aging: The intense UV radiation in Singapore is particularly detrimental to skin health as it breaks down collagen and elastin at a faster rate than in cooler climates. This leads to premature ageing and invites problems such as wrinkles and age spots, which are increasingly concerning to the health-conscious populace.

Heightened Skin Cancer Risk: With prolonged exposure to elevated UV levels, Singaporeans face an increased risk of skin cancers, including melanoma and more prevalent forms like basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. This risk is exacerbated by the dense urban environment, which can hinder effective sun avoidance strategies during peak hours.

Aggravated Respiratory Health Complications

The combination of high heat and urban smog significantly deteriorates air quality in Singapore, and it exacerbates respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Poor air quality during the time of heat waves can irritate the airways, cause breathing difficulties and make their symptoms worse. It can necessitate hospital visits. The urban landscape can also trap pollutants and heat, complicating the management of such respiratory conditions.

Other Heat-Related Illness Spectrum in Singapore

The impact of Singapore’s rising temperatures extends to a broad spectrum of other heat-related illnesses that affect daily activities and health. They include:

Heat Exhaustion It is common during long periods of heat in the nation and is marked by symptoms such as heavy sweating, weakness, and dizziness.
Heat Stroke This severe condition is a risk in Singapore's tropical climate, where high humidity levels can prevent effective body cooling through sweat. Emergency services in Singapore are well-versed in responding to such heat-related emergencies as they emphasise the critical nature of immediate medical intervention.
Disrupted Sleep Patterns Heatwaves are known to disrupt sleep by increasing body temperature, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. The optimal temperature for sleep is around 18-22 degrees Celsius, but as urban temperatures climb, many find their homes uncomfortably warm at night. This results in reduced sleep quality, which can have significant knock-on effects on health, productivity, and well-being. Linking to sleep concerns, a Philips study indicated that Singaporeans are among the world's worst sleepers, with many getting less sleep than the global average. This chronic sleep deprivation is exacerbated by rising nighttime temperatures, which disrupt the natural cooling process crucial for deep and restorative sleep.
Daytime Drowsiness and Health Implications The consequences of poor sleep extend beyond just feeling tired. Daytime sleepiness can lead to decreased productivity at work, increased irritability, and higher susceptibility to accidents. Long-term, the health impacts are even more severe, with chronic sleep deprivation linked to a host of issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and weakened immune response.

Vulnerable Populations at Increased Risk

The impact of rising temperatures in Singapore is particularly acute among certain vulnerable groups, and it necessitates targeted support and interventions. This category includes:

Elderly Individuals: The elderly in Singapore are significantly affected by heat due to their reduced ability to regulate body temperature and the prevalence of chronic conditions that can be aggravated by heat.  

Children: Rising temperatures pose significant health risks to children who are particularly vulnerable due to their developing bodies. The increased heat exacerbates the risk of dehydration as children are less likely to recognise and respond to signs of thirst. Moreover, children are at a heightened risk of heat-related illnesses such as heat rashes, heat exhaustion, and even heat stroke during periods of intense heat waves. The psychological impact of heat on children is also notable — studies suggest that excessive heat can affect children's learning and cognitive performance and lead to decreased attention spans and reduced school performance.  

People with Pre-existing Health Conditions: Individuals in Singapore with pre-existing health conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases face heightened risks due to increasing temperatures. The heat can exacerbate symptoms, increase their frequency and severity of complications. This poses a significant challenge in managing these conditions effectively.

Economic Impacts and Social Disruptions: As Singapore grapples with rising temperatures, Singapore’s economic and social fabric is also feeling the heat. The increasing frequency of heat waves affects various sectors—energy consumption, workplace productivity, and infrastructure durability. These changes necessitate adaptations in policy and community behaviour to mitigate adverse effects and ensure sustainable growth in this new climatic reality.

Increased Energy Demand: Higher temperatures lead to greater reliance on air conditioning, significantly increasing energy consumption and stressing power grids. This surge in demand can lead to higher electricity costs and potential outages and impact both households and businesses.

Workforce Productivity: Heat stress can decrease productivity, especially in outdoor and un-air-conditioned environments. The Ministry of Manpower in Singapore recommends adopting workplace heat stress management measures to ensure worker safety and maintain productivity levels.

Environmental Consequences: Singapore faces significant environmental challenges due to increased urban temperatures which impact the city's wildlife and green infrastructure as well. These rising temperatures strain local ecosystems — it necessitates innovative solutions to mitigate their effects.

Understanding El Niño and Its Impact on Singapore's Climate

El Niño is a climate event marked by the warming of central and eastern Pacific Ocean waters, leading to significant changes in global weather patterns. In Singapore, the influence of El Niño manifests as alterations in precipitation and temperature, which notably affect the island's climate dynamics.

This year, El Niño has contributed to distinct shifts in Singapore’s weather. El Niño typically results in decreased rainfall and increased temperatures across the country, especially impacting the southwest monsoon season from June to September. For example, the potent El Niño event of 2015/2016 led to markedly lower rainfall and above-average temperatures during these crucial months. Such changes can exacerbate urban heat island effects, amplify the UV index, impact renewable energy production, increase energy demand, particularly for cooling, and impact water reservoir levels negatively due to reduced rainfall. These shifts are critical for a nation like Singapore, where water self-sufficiency and energy efficiency are strategic priorities.

Singapore invests heavily in weather forecasting technologies and infrastructure adaptations to manage and mitigate these impacts. A few measures include enhancing water storage and conservation practices, refining urban planning to improve airflow and reduce heat retention, and public education campaigns focused on energy conservation during peak heat periods. In addition to that, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and the NEA also actively monitor El Niño forecasts to adjust national water management strategies and public advisories accordingly and remain prepared for variable and extreme weather conditions induced by global climatic phenomena.

NEA Guidelines to Safeguard Against Heat-Related Risks in Singapore

As Singapore grapples with rising temperatures and heightened UV risks, the NEA has formulated detailed guidelines to help individuals protect themselves. These guidelines focus on practical measures to mitigate heat-related health issues and ensure public safety during extreme heat events. Let us look at them.

Preparation for High UV Index Days

Seek Shade and Avoid Peak Sun Hours: NEA emphasises the importance of staying indoors or seeking shade, especially between the peak UV radiation hours of 11 AM and 3 PM. This is crucial for comfort and to reduce the risk of UV-induced skin damage and related diseases significantly.

Use Sun Protection: Comprehensive sun protection involves applying sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which should be reapplied every two hours when outdoors, along with wearing protective clothing and sunglasses that block UV rays. This dual approach helps lower the risk of long-term dermatological issues significantly.

Regular Updates and Alerts: NEA provides UV index forecasts on its digital platforms, which allows Singaporeans to plan outdoor activities safely. Awareness of these forecasts can facilitate better daily scheduling and minimise exposure to harmful UV rays.

Heat Stress Prevention Strategies

Stay Hydrated: Drinking sufficient water is crucial, not just during physical activity but throughout the day, as dehydration can sneak up quickly, especially in seniors and children. It can impair physiological functions and increase vulnerability to heat stress.

Cooling Measures: In addition to using air conditioning, NEA suggests adopting habits like cold showers and the use of cooling patches, which can provide immediate relief from heat. Public buildings are recommended to maintain a cooler indoor climate to serve as safe havens during heat waves.

Acclimatisation: Gradually increasing exposure to hot conditions helps the body adapt better and reduce the risk of heat illnesses. This practice is particularly recommended for outdoor workers and those new to Singapore's climate.

Encouraging Smart and Sustainable Practices

Energy-Efficient Appliances: Promoting the use of air conditioners and fans that have higher energy efficiency ratings helps reduce electricity consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. NEA promotes the use of green appliances through rebates and incentives as part of its energy conservation drive. It offers incentives for energy conservation through its Climate Friendly Households Programme. Under this initiative, each HDB household can claim $300 in Climate Vouchers, which can be used to purchase energy- and water-efficient products. This is part of Singapore's broader strategy to promote the use of green appliances and enhance energy efficiency. This reduces the carbon footprint and alleviates the urban heat island effect.

Building Design and Construction: Encouraging the adoption of sustainable building practices, such as installing energy-efficient windows and better insulation, helps maintain cooler indoor environments and reduces reliance on air conditioning. Supporting the implementation of building codes that enhance thermal comfort and reduce heat gain, such as reflective roofs and better insulation.  

Green Infrastructure Solutions: In response to the heat, Singapore has invested in developing green infrastructures like vertical gardens and green roofs. These structures help to mitigate the urban heat island effect by cooling the environment, thus improving urban air quality, and providing cooler habitats for urban wildlife.

Public Cooling Centers: The NEA has established cooling centres in community centres and public buildings that are activated during extreme heat events. These centres provide a safe environment for individuals vulnerable to heat, especially the elderly and those without adequate home cooling solutions.

Educational Campaigns and Resources: NEA undertakes extensive public education campaigns to raise awareness about the risks of hot temperatures, heat hazards, UV exposure, and UV protection. These campaigns are supported by resources available on the NEA website, including brochures, infographics, and detailed reports on how to cope with extreme weather conditions. They are also available at community centres and include detailed guides and tips on making lifestyle adjustments that align with environmental sustainability goals.

Special Considerations for Vulnerable Populations

Community Support for the Elderly: Local community centres and social services provide assistance and monitoring to ensure that vulnerable populations like the elderly, children, and those with chronic health conditions do not suffer unduly from heat effects. The Silver Generation Office and other community networks actively engage in outreach to ensure that the elderly receive proper care during heatwaves, such as ensuring access to air-conditioned environments and proper hydration.

Children: Schools and childcare centres in Singapore are equipped with protocols to protect children from heat stress. This includes adjusting physical activity schedules to cooler parts of the day and ensuring indoor activities are available during extreme heat. Educational programs also focus on teaching children about the importance of hydration and recognising signs of heat exhaustion.  

Health Monitoring: NEA advocates for regular medical check-ups and maintaining contact with health providers to manage chronic conditions effectively during hot periods. The Health Promotion Board  works to raise awareness about the dangers of heat for those with conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Clinics are advised to monitor at-risk patients more closely during periods of high heat and provide guidance on managing health in warmer weather.

Additional Concerns Regarding Heat in Singapore

Water and Energy

The water supply in Singapore is also vulnerable to the impacts of heightened temperatures. Increased evaporation rates and changing rainfall patterns can strain the already limited freshwater resources. Concurrently, the demand for electricity surges as households and businesses ramp up air conditioning. This raises energy costs and drives the release of carbon emissions further, thereby fuelling a vicious cycle of warming.

Technological and Structural Adaptations

The nation’s response to rising temperatures involves adaptive strategies in building and environmental planning. Innovations like green roofs, energy-efficient buildings, and heat-reflective construction materials are becoming more prevalent. These initiatives contribute to cooler indoor environments and mitigation of the broader urban heat island effect.

Combating Heat-Induced Sleep Disruption

The government of Singapore and health bodies are starting to address these issues with guidelines aimed at helping residents manage the heat at night. Recommendations include using air conditioning judiciously, opting for breathable cotton bedding, and even redesigning homes for better airflow. Public health campaigns also stress the importance of maintaining a cool sleeping environment as part of a broader strategy to improve sleep health amidst rising temperatures.

A Cooler, Smarter Singapore

As the temperature in Singapore continues to rise, the intertwined challenges of managing heat stress and maintaining quality of life become even more pressing. While the situation may appear daunting, there is a pathway forward that involves collective action and adherence to safety protocols to combat the heat and handle the rigours of their tropical climate.  

Sometimes, even by making a small conscious decision like availing aircon servicing at our homes on time, we contribute to the larger spectrum of change in saving energy. Singapore has been more resilient than the world could ever imagine, and its coupled strategic planning is always striving to offer a blueprint for how societies might adapt to and mitigate the worst effects of global warming.  

And that’s wonderful news!

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