The last eight years have been the hottest years ever measured on the planet, according to the World Meteorological Organization; July was ; July 6 was the hottest day. All over the planet, the heat broke temperature records, including in Siberia, where the thermometer hit 103 degrees!
More than half the U.S. population was subject to heat warnings in July. In Phoenix, Arizona, the heat has broken all kinds of records, including the longest streak of consecutive days (31, from June 30 to July 30) where the temperature hit 110 degrees or hotter.
And it's not just the hot air that's dangerous; it's the surfaces. Using a non-contact infrared thermometer, Pogue measured the temperature of the steering wheel of a car: 162.5° Fahrenheit. A sidewalk was 144°F – hot enough to burn your dog's paws in 60 seconds. And a playground slide for children was 182.8°F.
"I actually have mittens in my car so that when the steering wheel gets really hot, I put my mittens on, and that's how I drive," said Melissa Guardaro, an extreme-heat researcher at Arizona State University.
Pogue said, "You know you're living in a hot place when you have to keep oven mitts in your glove compartment!"
"Yeah! Probably not in the glove compartment, because you can't touch the metal tab."
According to Guardaro, Phoenix hospitals have seen a rise in admissions for heat stress – the most they'd ever had. "People say, 'Oh, you live in Phoenix, it's a dry heat.' And honestly, 100°, 105° is not bad," she said. "But I want to stress very strongly, nobody is acclimated to 115, 118 degrees."
So, why is so much of the country scorching for so long? It's thanks to the "heat dome." It's an area of high pressure, way up high, that traps warm air like the lid on a pot. It traps the heat, it stops rain from moving in to cool us off, and it just sits there. Unfortunately, not every area under the heat dome suffers equally.
Cities get the worst of it, according to Becca Benner, director of climate issues at the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. "Cities are where heat comes to stay and comes to live," she said. "Cities, on average, are several degrees warmer than the surrounding areas. Just because of so much pavement, it tends to absorb heat better and reflect heat better."
It's called the "urban heat island effect": too much pavement, and not enough trees and greenery to cool things off. The heat island effect is worst in the poorer areas of our cities, where there aren't many trees, and even the bus stops don't always offer shade.
Carlos Galves lives in Phoenix without air conditioning, electricity, or even running water. The thermometer on his wall registers 109°F. When asked if he is able to sleep in this heat, he replied, "I sleep for half an hour, then I'll lie awake for an hour after that, because it's just so hot."
He said to stay cool at home he drinks a lot of water. "And twice a day I pour a bucket of water on myself, and I just try to rest in the evening," he said.
In Phoenix, you can get free transportation to the city's 90 cooling centers. But ever since he collapsed from the heat last month, Galves is worried about leaving his house: "I'm afraid I could faint again if I go out during the day. So, I wait 'til the sun is going down to go out to get ice or water."
Even for people who have conditioning, not everyone can afford to use it; the average monthly bill for A/C in Phoenix is more than $450 a month. Guardaro said, "We have a group of people who have to make very difficult choices. Do I pay for air conditioning, or do I pay for my rent? This kind of heat wave is bringing up all the chinks in the infrastructure."
Last month, President Biden announced some small steps toward adapting to dangerous heat, like expanding access to drinking water, improving weather forecasts, and setting up a heat alert system. But Guardaro maintains that there's much more to be done. City planners should develop heat infrastructure (like cooling centers and strategic greenery), and the federal government should start taking heat as seriously as it treats other climate disasters. For example, FEMA has never declared extreme heat as a disaster.
Pogue asked, "So, flooding and hurricanes, all those things would be designated federal disaster areas, but not heat?"
"Not heat," Guardaro replied. "Standing up more cooling centers, providing greater services for people – that is not reimbursed by the government, because there has never been a FEMA extreme-heat-declared disaster.
"Extreme heat is the climate disaster that kills the most people," she said. "In fact, it kills more people than all of the other disasters combined. And we kind of have a joke here that we show a picture of before a heat wave, and then we show a picture after a heat wave, and it's the same picture. And that's part of the problem, because people see tornadoes and houses are upended and hurricanes and trees and utility poles. [Heat] is this invisible killer."
Of course, heatwaves aren't the only result of the warming planet. Heat also dries out vegetation, and we get fires. Heat evaporates the land, so we get droughts. Heat evaporates the oceans, so we get hurricanes.
The Nature Conservancy's Becca Benner cautions us not to think of this summer's heat as something freakish and rare; it's the new normal. "It is no longer a future threat; we are living this now," she said. "So, whether your basement just flooded, whether you just had to evacuate for a fire, whether it's too hot for you to go outside and enjoy yourself, that means we are now experiencing some of the impacts of climate change. We have to reduce emissions. And we have to do it immediately, and faster."
For more info:
- Melissa Guardaro, assistant research professor, Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Arizona State University
- Rebecca Benner, managing director and deputy director, Climate Change Team, The Nature Conservancy
Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Carol Ross.
for more features.