No matter where you are, it’s too darned hot
To listen to popular songs from the past, one might think that heat waves were mostly pleasant occasions to lay back in a recliner and just enjoy a cool drink since it’s too hot for either work or play.
But the heat waves of today are a different matter. They’ve become fiercer, more frequent and connected to other adverse climate events such as droughts, storms and wildfires. Extreme heat waves might not seem as dramatic as hurricanes or floods but the National Weather Service has deemed them the deadliest weather phenomenon, on average, in the United States over the past 30 years. Recent record-breaking temperatures not only in the Pacific Northwest but in Las Vegas (117 degrees F), Canada (121 degrees F), Scandinavia (94 degrees F), and Siberia (100 degrees F) have been all-time records, as has 134 degrees F in Death Valley, Calif. According to Reuters, June 2021 was the hottest June in the United States in 127 years.
Atmospheric phenomena combine to form “heat domes” where high pressure air above keeps ground level air and its heat in place where it is further warmed by the sun and heat escaping from the Earth. The result is abnormally hot air.
While droughts are a recurrent feature of changing climate all over the world, according to many Earth scientists, the American Southwest landscape is the driest it has been since the late 1500s. As a result, the lakes and reservoirs that supply most of the area’s water (including Lake Mead, which supplies seven states) are at their lowest levels in recent memory thus threatening not only potable water supplies for individuals but also for growing crops (the major users), businesses, and fire fighting.
In California, 2020 was the worst year ever for wildfire damage. The drought, which has been happening for more than 20 years, has left most of the state especially dry and vulnerable to fire. This year, the wildfire season, which normally starts in June, began two months early. The very dry ground and vegetation has made fires more likely to happen and more difficult to control. Water to extinguish fires is in short supply. 2021 is likely to surpass 2020 as the worst wildfire season in memory.
The death toll from the heat waves, not to mention the fires, for a dozen Western states and British Columbia is poised to be the highest on record by the end of 2021. Extreme heat has contributed to an average of at least 140 fatalities in the United States each year. For 2021 the number is already over 200.
The electric grid throughout the West is straining to provide the power requested and authorities are asking customers to significantly reduce their consumption of electricity to avoid blackouts. But people are using their air conditioners more than ever to help endure the extreme heat. Surviving a prolonged heat wave may prove too difficult for many people.
Among the problems piling up, more air pollution from increased energy production (to power air conditioners) and extensive forest wildfire smoke will cause additional sickness, particularly in the health compromised portion of the population.
The droughts associated with the heat waves are continuing to reduce crop yields, thus causing a problem of national significance since California is the country’s largest food producer. And other Western states are also experiencing the problem of lower food production.
The northeastern United States has an unusually benign climate. Despite occasional hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and tornadoes, our weather has been less extreme than that of most other parts of the country. But climate change is affecting us as well. The frequency of heat waves has increased throughout our region over the past several decades and climate experts have forecast much hotter, more frequent heat waves for the future.
Is there anything we can do to reduce the problem? Yes! Use less energy, especially that derived from fossil fuels.
Increasing the shade where we are can also make a significant difference. Towns and cities absorb more heat and can become as much as 20 degrees F hotter than their surroundings. Massive tree planting campaigns can help (although it may take 15 years or more for saplings to develop enough leaf canopy to offer much shade). Anyone building a new house in the Northwest Corner should consider using trees to shade their home, including outdoor parking and sitting areas. Green roofs can lower summer temperatures inside a house considerably; so can effective insulation. Using energy-efficient appliances and equipment helps. Driving less can save a lot of energy.
But individual actions, while valuable if done by enough people, should not distract us from the major problem: climate change. Supporting politicians who understand and will act on this is crucial. The pace of climate change is accelerating and we need to move much faster to catch up with what is happening.
Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.