Randall Cerveny is a President’s Professor at Arizona State University Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning School. He is also the rapporteur on extreme records for the World Meteorological Organization. His expertise, and his location in Phoenix, offer a disturbing insight on the North American realities of global warming so far.
In a recent interview, Cerveny explained that, “One of the most common scenarios that we see in the models is not so much that high temperatures are getting higher, although they are slightly. The bigger thing is that our low temperatures for the day are getting much higher. Back 20, 30 years ago in Phoenix, Arizona, we rarely had temperatures that were in the 90s for lows. Today, during the summertime, we’ll have several days where 90 degrees or higher is actually our low temperature for the day.”
In the evening in Phoenix, it cools down to 90 degrees or more. The effect this heat has on people is clear in a comparison from last year of the number of calls to the Phoenix Regional Call Centre dispatch under the code for heat related illness. Last year, there were 279 in a 30 day summertime period. According to Captain Brian Axelrod of the Phoenix Fire Department, this year, in the same period, there have been 977.
Captain Axelrod says, “Heat stroke is heat exhaustion. Indications involve dizziness, some muscle cramps, vomiting or nauseousness, and increased perspiration. The body needs water, but the best time to pump it into the system, is 24 hours before exposure. It is too late to mitigate symptoms if water is consumed at the point of distress.”
This preparedness is important for tourists who tend to travel during the summer holidays, and may not realize the transition to extreme temperatures can be abrupt. Even the temperature readings themselves do not reflect the human experience of radiant heat, which can be as much as 20 degrees higher, making the air dangerous to breathe, and turning metals into extreme threats to the skin.
So far this summer, people experiencing the 120 degree temperatures of July have posted many examples of their vehicles acting like ovens and stoves, showing eggs frying on the car hood, or cookies baking on the dashboard.
It is common now to see dogs wearing boots to protect their paws, and drivers in oven gloves holding scorching steering wheels. Employees at Costco are completely covered in hoodie, gloves, and a face scarf when they are outside collecting shopping carts.
Professor Cerveny offers another comparison with the past. The big heat wave that took place in 2003 in Europe killed 70,000 people, but the problem was that the infrastructure wasn’t built to handle it. “They didn’t have air conditioning for most parts in places like France.”
In 1995, there was a heat wave that settled over Chicago, Illinois, and 739 people died from heat-related conditions within a two week period. Most of the victims were elderly, poor residents, who could not afford air conditioning and did not open windows or sleep outside for fear of crime.
With more high temperature records being broken around the country and around the world today, the likelihood of more heat waves increases everywhere.
North of the border, British Columbia’s summer temperatures are on average 8 degrees above normal, and the long absence of rain has generated an active fire season. The Interior town of Lytton is 38 C degrees (100.4 F) this week, with a nighttime low of 20 (68 F).
A prolonged period of rainless blue skies has created the dry forest conditions that act like a tinderbox when lightening strikes, or a camper disregards the No Campfires signs in every park, or an errant smoker tosses a butt out the car window.
There are over 500 forest fires burning in British Columbia, and fire crews from other provinces and from the US have recently been joined by firefighters from Mexico. There is no rain in sight this first week of August, even while thunder clouds threaten mountains and valleys with dry lightening.
Smoke from these conflagrations has been carried by strong winds as far as the coast, and the City of Vancouver—a long way from the flames—has had eight days and counting of air quality hazards as high as 7 on the Health Warning scale, with red sunrises and red sunsets. Much of the Okanagan Valley—renown for its vineyards and orchards, and a favourite summer destination for tourists and urbanites with getaway homes, has suffered several weeks of dangerously high air quality readings.
Summers in the Pacific Northwest have historically been mild, and Seattle, the region’s largest city, has been used to temperatures around 70 F. In 130 years of record-keeping, the city has only reached triple digits three times: in 1941, 1994, and 2009.
But this first week of August, Seattle and Portland, to the South, can expect temperatures from 100 to 107 degrees. Neither these cities nor Vancouver, BC has been built on air conditioning. According to the New York Times, cities like Seattle and Portland are preparing for the heat by opening cooling centres for residents without access to air conditioning.
To make the situation even more dangerous for those prone to heat-related illness — the very old, the very young, or those with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, nighttime temperatures in the region are not expected to drop much below 70°F. When night temperatures remain high, it is even more difficult for the body to cool off, increasing the risk of heat-related illness.
Some parts of the US mid-west will see temperatures as much as 20 degrees above the old normal, and in the Southwest, airplanes cannot take off in extreme heat. On the last Tuesday of July, it was 120 degrees (48.9C) in Phoenix, and nothing was rising.
There is no doubt about it. Extremes are the new normal.
Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.