Preparing for Heat Waves in Korea

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Have you seen Korean heat wave advisories on your phone or in the media? Heat waves should be taken as seriously as typhoons and monsoons while living in South Korea. Let’s talk about what why heat waves are a serious topic in Korea and how you can be prepared to live your best life and stay safe.

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History of Heat Waves in South Korea

When living in South Korea, you may need to adjust to the increasing number of heat wave-related advisories. This is because heat waves in Korea have been steadily increasing since the 1940s. Let’s take a quick look at the history of this evolving weather situation:

The emergence of Heat Waves (1940s – 1980s)

While South Korea has experienced warm summers throughout its history, noticeable heat waves emerged in the mid-20th century. Records from the Korean Meteorological Administration (KMA) show that heat waves became significantly noticeable in the late 1940s. A heat wave is described as days with temperatures above 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The situation worsened in the 1980s, with instances of heat waves becoming more frequent and prolonged.

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Intensification of Heat Waves (1990s – 2000)

According to the Korean Meteorological Administration, the 1990s and early 2000 marked a period of heat wave intensification. The average number of heatwave days doubled during this period compared to the previous decades. The heat wave of 1994 was notably severe, with temperatures soaring to 38.4 degrees Celsius (101.12 degrees Fahrenheit), a record high at that time.

Unprecedented Heat Waves (2010 – Present)

In the 2010, South Korea began experiencing unprecedented heat waves. The summer of 2018 was the hottest on record, with temperatures reaching an all-time high of 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in the city of Hongcheon. The same year, Seoul recorded its highest-ever temperature of 39.6 degrees Celsius (103.28 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat wave claimed more than 1,000 lives across the country, marking a grim milestone in South Korea’s history. During the 2018 heatwave 42 people died and over 3,000 people were treated for heat related illness.

Switching to lived experience for a moment, my husband and I did not have air conditioning during the 2018 heat wave. Our AC unit could not keep up with the heat and failed. In our home, the temps reached 44 degrees Celcius. We worked very hard to keep both ourselves and our dogs safe and healthy through nearly 3 weeks of unrelenting heat. This is why I find it very important to make sure others know what to do to stay safe.

Understanding the Severity of Heat Waves

Heat waves are described as extended periods of excessively hot weather. Such hot weather poses a significant threat to public health and community safety. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies them as the deadliest of all weather-related hazards. The WHO even published a set of Heat Health Action Plans to help European countries manage this dangerous weather trend. That means we ALL need to take them more seriously.

You can download the WHO Heat Health Action Plans which we embedded in this blog post:

Developing a Heat Wave Preparedness Plan

Since heat waves are serious, we need to remember that it isn’t enough to complain about the heat, we need a plan. Let’s talk about what a heat wave plan might look like.

About Heat Wave Preparedness Plans

To safeguard against heat waves, communities, and individuals must develop a comprehensive preparedness plan(s). Such plans should encompass early warning systems, individual health precautions, and public policy strategies. As International Residents of South Korea, we need to take a personal responsibility that we do our research and have our own Heat Wave Preparedness Plans in response to Korea’s heat wave warnings. Let’s dig into what that may look like for you, starting with understanding how Korea helps you manage your safety:

The Early Warning System in Korea

Early warning systems play a critical role in alerting Korean communities about upcoming heat waves. That’s why the South Korean Federal government implemented the Heat Health Warning Systems (HHWS), which offer accurate and timely forecasts to aid emergency planning. As international residents we need to pay attention to such systems.

Since temperatures in South Korea may vary widely across the country, the HHWS offers information based on 14 different cities across South Korea to support localized warnings. This localized information allows 14 cities to issue Early Warning Alerts for their specific area using Korea’s national emergency alert system. Such an alert system delivers to smartphones across the country based on individual regions. To learn more about managing your Emergency Alerts in South Korea click here. To stay safe, we need to pay attention to these individualized alerts and plan accordingly.

Now that we know what resources South Korean society provides, let’s look at what we can all do to protect ourselves.

General Individual Health Precautions

Individual preparedness is just as vital. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following steps to remain safe during a heat wave:

  1. Stay Hydrated: Regularly drink water, even if not thirsty. Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated drinks that can lead to dehydration.
  2. Stay Cool: Seek air-conditioned environments. Use fans, take cool showers, and dress in lightweight clothing.
  3. Never Leave Anyone in a Closed, Parked Vehicle: Temperatures inside a car can skyrocket quickly, leading to heatstroke or death.
  4. Check on Others: Regularly check on older neighbors, children, and pets, as they are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.
  5. Monitor Health Conditions: Pay special attention to those with chronic health conditions, ensuring they receive proper care and hydration

Plan for Your Pets

Don’t stop at having a plan for yourself, also make a plan for your pets. How will they exercise safely outside? What how will you keep them cool while you are out of the house? What if your AC goes out? Remember that dogs will overheat almost immediatly in a heatwave and their feat will blister on the pavement. Have a plan.

Be Informed Regarding Heat-Related Illnesses

The US CDC also provides the following info graph to help you identify if you may be having symptoms. Read the information carefully. Maybe even keep the heat-related illnesses info graph posted in your home:

Options for Managing Your Health

Most international residents in South Korea have Korean National Health Insurance. This means you can easily visit a clinic or hospital if you feel the heat impacting your health. Do not hesitate to seek medical care if you show signs of illness. It’s better to stay safe and medical care in South Korea is not expensive.

Options if Your AC Fails

It is common for air conditioning (AC) units to fail during heat waves. Many AC units can not keep up with cooling during these extremely hot days or even weeks. Additionally, as you can imagine, it may take 2-3 weeks for an appointment with an AC technician during a heat wave. Therefore, it’s important to have an emergency plan if your AC fails. Here is what you need to know:

Government-sponsored Options

In South Korea, most local governments offer cooling centers that operate during the day. Such cooling centers may include air-conditioned community centers and other facilities. Depending on local governments, those centers are open until 9 p.m.

In theory, anyone can use those facilities after presenting their ID (for foreigners it’s your Foreign Resident Card) to the staff. However, some cities may prioritize older people or low-income people.

To find cool centers in your area you can check with:

  • 주민센터
  • 행정복지센터
  • 시청
  • 구청

Keep in mind, such cooling centers are managed by local governments which means each area may have different rules for accessing such spots. Some areas may also not provide such public spaces. You will need to learn about the rules for your area.

Businesses and Public Spaces

If you do not feel comfortable using a cooling center or can’t find one near you, the following businesses may be a safe place to escape and recover:

During the Day:

Try escaping to one of the following businesses or spaces which offer space filled with AC.

  • Shopping malls
  • Movie theaters
  • Cafes
  • Libraries
  • Splash pads
  • Water parks

Open 24 Hours:

If you also need a place to stay at night, try one the following options.

  • Jjjimjilbangs (Open 24hrs and you can sleep there)
  • PC Bangs (Open 24hrs but no sleeping, just playing games. About 2,000 KRW an hour)
  • Convenience stores (May offer places to sit, ice cream, drinks, etc)
  • Norae Bangs or Bars

Other Options:

  • Keep reusable cold or icepacks in the fridge that you can hold on your chest to cool yourself during the day. We also created a bed of ice packs for our dogs. This allowed us to manage the three weeks of blinding heat at home.
  • Stay with a friend. Offer to spit their AC bill during your stay.
  • Get on YouTube and build a temp cooling system using fans and filters.
  • Try to find a portable AC on sale on Coupang or Gmarket.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional articles to read in preperation for summer heat waves in South Korea. Additionally, we recommend following and reading the following bloggers. These community leaders provide accurate information on South Korea.

Let Us Know What We Missed

If you know of additional information related to Heat Waves in South Korea that we should add to this blog post, please leave a comment or message us at blog@southofseoul.net. We always want to keep our blogs current with specific and useful information for international residents of South Korea.