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A record-setting siege of deadly heat gives Southwest a taste of its future

Air-conditioning failures are a leading cause of heat-driven demise in a region that is used to be scorched but can’t engineer invulnerability.

The deep red areas of the map, which shows measurements taken on June 21, represent temperatures above 149ºF.

Life-threatening temperatures that have burdened the Southwest for more than a week are falling at last, easing a siege described frequently as the region’s most severe in decades, and occasionally as unprecedented.

The death toll is still unclear but seems likely to be mercifully low, considering that 23 million people across the region were under official warnings to take precautions.

I found no comprehensive figures but counted for myself around 20 confirmed heat fatalities in news reports from Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. Many officials say that number will surely rise as relatives and neighbors discover more instances of an air-conditioning failure turning lethal.

This is the most common scenario for heat-driven demise in a region that is used to being scorched yet cannot engineer invulnerability. Indeed, the temperature-controlled city of Los Angeles announced the opening of more than a dozen emergency “cooling centers” in municipal park buildings, libraries and the like, which sounded sort of like what the Red Cross does after a hurricane.

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Five of the deaths were in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and other cities with a combined population above 4 million, and is even more AC-dependent than L.A. But this is not so unusual in Maricopa, which counted 130 heat fatalities last year and about the same, on average, over the previous decade (1,300 deaths from 2005 through 2015).

Last Tuesday Phoenix set an all-time high at 119° and Maricopa was among 12 Arizona counties that were still under an excessive-heat warning through the weekend and into Monday, with predicted highs in the 120° range.  By midweek, perhaps, Phoenix will be down to 108° and then subside to a more seasonal 106°.

Hospital emergency rooms there reported admissions surges for heat-related illness and also — grim image — contact burns on the feet, from walking on hot asphalt, or on the hands, typically from touching an automobile exterior, or on the knees of babies who crawl onto concrete while nobody’s watching.

200° on the ground

Up at Death Valley National Park, in eastern California, rangers dealt with a woman whose sandals came off in the sand and then walked barefoot for another half-mile; she was hospitalized with third-degree burns.

Air temperatures in the park had touched 127°, a record said to be just seven degrees shy of the all-time record anywhere on Earth. Ground temperatures were in the range of 200°, which a park official helpfully explained was 40 degrees higher than needed to fry a hamburger in a skillet.

As I read a week’s worth of heat-wave media coverage from the region it struck me as not unlike the material our papers here on the tundra serve up around blizzards and brutal cold snaps — leavening the grim statistics of death and injury with tropes of featurey cuteness as people muddle through.

Like the Phoenix radio station that was giving away hospital-bootie-type foot coverings for dogs who had to walk on hot pavement. Or the San Diego animal-control authorities’ warning that the extreme heat may well “roust” rattlesnakes from underneath rock heaps, shrubbery, debris piles and porches.

And, of course, there was the emphasis on record-breaking temps, which were in fact remarkable. Bearing in mind that heat in arid regions becomes life-threatening to people in the out of doors when it stays around 104° for very long, consider these:

  • Las Vegas, 117° (tie), within nine straight days at 110° or higher, which was one day below the record string of 10.
  • Tucson, Arizona, 116°.
  • Yuma, Arizona, 120°.
  • Palm Springs, California, 122° (tie).
  • Needles, California, 125° (tie).
  • Ocotillo Wells, California, 124°.

An inconvenient climate

So the heat wave of 2017 is surely one for the record books, especially when the wave of worsening wildfires already under way across the region continues to grow; Arizona’s governor found grounds to declare an emergency on Saturday.

But it is questionable whether it will really be one for the history books, driven as it was by climate factors that continue to progress in ways that will likely make many a future hot spell considerably worse.

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This was not an aspect that came in for much discussion in regional media last week so far as I could tell. I was surprised, for example, to see no mention at all of last week’s marquee findings about the likely surge in deadly heat days over the rest of this century.

Who knows why? Maybe it’s too controversial, still. Maybe it’s considered bad taste to mention this before the instant suffering subsides. Or maybe most people understand and accept this hard truth already, which would seem to be reasonable, wise and unlikely.

Speaking to The New York Times, however, an Arizona expert drew the connection quite clearly:

David Sailor, a professor at Arizona State University and the director of its Urban Climate Research Center, said that such heat waves were to be expected in the summer, but that climate change amplified such spikes in temperature.

“The science is showing that the likelihood and the magnitude of these heat waves is likely to be exacerbated by climate change,” he said.

He also emphasized the connection between what he called “global drivers of local weather” and the weather itself.

“When you have these heat waves, the residents in the area of course are using more air-conditioning than they would otherwise,” he said. “So there’s a lot more waste heat being dumped into the environment from their attempts to keep their buildings cool. That creates a kind of positive feedback loop between local heat and global climate change.”

Assault on infrastructure

Another aspect of this year’s misery that got a lot of attention was the heat-forced cancellation of airline flights in the region — especially around Phoenix, where as many as 350 were scrubbed — because extremely hot, dry air offers too little lift.

Larger planes can cope by reducing the weight of passengers and cargo they carry, and by making their takeoff and landing trajectories longer, within the limits of available runway. Smaller planes, of the commuter-type class that are becoming more prevalent as airlines cut operating costs, lack that flexibility and just stay parked. (Less widely reported, but also interesting — a train derailment in California blamed on heat-warped rails.)

That led Justin Worland at Time magazine to examine the heat wave’s implications for a range of important infrastructure — from  transportation to electric power to food supply and building design.

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Heat waves are nothing new, but they have increased in frequency and severity in recent decades as a result of climate change. And each extreme heat event reveals another way our society simply isn’t built for such high temperatures, from our transport systems to the agriculture industry.

“We’ve built entire infrastructures with particular temperatures in mind,” says Matthew T. Huber, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University. “When temperatures get really high, we don’t have the material capacity to deal with that.”

Still, humans continue to relocate to warm places like the Southwest, drawn by the temperate climate. In the coming decades, many climate researchers expect that pattern to reverse, as those once-desirable locations become too hot, flooded or otherwise uninhabitable. In some locations, particularly in the West, people will soon need to decide whether to rebuild for the new reality — or relocate elsewhere.