Letter from a heat-parched West: How times and temps have changed
The Christian Science Monitor | By Francine Kiefer Staff writer | June 24, 2021
Last week, as millions of people from New Mexico to California to Montana wilted under an early and record-breaking heat wave, I posed a question to a few friends in the West: What have you noticed about the heat in your area over the years? I’m still a relative newcomer to “SoCal,” and was curious about changes over time, how folks were coping, and whether they noticed a sense of urgency around the subject of climate change.
Most of the responses came from Arizona, where heat is a serious health risk. Last year, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, reported 323 heat-related deaths – its most ever recorded. Excessive heat warning days doubled from the year before. Together, Arizona, California, and Texas account for about a third of the 700 average heat deaths a year in the United States.
My friends tell of a different world from their childhood. “I played softball in the summer for so many years. I don’t remember it being 100-in-the-teens in June. It could be 102, and that would be a normal day. Not 110, or 111, or 115,” recalls Rosemary Mitchell, who grew up in Phoenix and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Last week she was back in Phoenix to help her mother move into a senior living community. She was shocked at the record-setting heat. (Last Thursday topped out at a record 118 degrees.) She could also smell the smoke from wildfires about 60 to 70 miles away – now a more frequent occurrence in the West.
“The sky on Monday was a dark gray, and the sun looked like this orb of flaming red in the sky. I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. It is so disturbing to me,” Rosemary says. The summer time warp from her childhood in the 1960s and ’70s – when Phoenix had roughly a fifth of its current population and a lot less asphalt and concrete – set off her inner alarm bell.
But she doesn’t see that happening with Arizonans for whom the change has been more gradual. “There is no conservation mentality here,” she observes, upset at outdoor sprinklers running in the afternoon, streets lined with two-story mansions three times the size of the low-slung houses of her childhood, and so many gas-guzzler Suburbans. “I see more solar panels on home roofs in Bethesda.”
Changes in temperatures – and in attitudes?
Phoenix-area writer Kimberly Hosey moved from Buffalo, New York, to Arizona before she started grade school. It was definitely hot in summer. She grew up hearing “you don’t have to shovel the heat,” every time she whined about the temperatures. They would sit in front of box fans draped with wet dish towels in their mobile home until they eventually got a one-window air conditioner. Record-setting days stand out – like the 122-degree scorcher on June 26, 1990 – when three sweaty kids were waiting with their mom in a car with no AC to pick up their dad.
But fast-forward. Now, she writes, dangerous heat waves are almost becoming the norm. The hot part of the year lasts longer, there are more days over 100 degrees, and it’s been drier than normal. The West is in a severe drought, which contributes to the heat. No summer monsoon season refreshed Arizona last year, its second “nonsoon” in a row. Lake Mead, which supplies water to 25 million people in the Southwest and Mexico, is at 36% capacity, its lowest since it was filled in the 1930s.
“This is a trend [that] should be obvious to a lot of people, but I don’t think it always is – though that could be partly my personal experience,” she writes. Abnormally hot days blur together, and between the temperature bubbles of air-conditioned buildings and political bubbles of partisanship, she explains, “there isn’t always the sense of urgency that there should be.”
But that’s rapidly changing – nationwide and in Arizona. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 52% of American adults think global climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress, up significantly from 34% just six years before. And 62% say climate change is affecting their local community at least some.
In Arizona, although a partisan divide persists, about 70% believe the federal government and the state need to do more to combat climate change, according to a 2020 poll commissioned by the Nina Mason Pullium Charitable Trust. And increasingly they don’t just “agree” but “strongly agree” with that objective.
“Still time” to act
Urgency is necessary for action, says climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He believes that urgency will intensify over the next decade as Earth crosses the threshold into average temperatures that are 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than in the pre-industrial age. Climate scientists say the shift means worsening drought, wildfires, flooding, and heat.
But it’s not hopeless, emphasizes this scientist, who was just awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize. There is “still time” to act, especially if drastic measures are taken to reduce “super pollutant” contributors along with carbon dioxide. Almost all of the focus is on carbon dioxide emissions, but these super pollutants – black carbon from diesel engines, methane from fracking, and hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants – make up almost half of greenhouse gases, he explains.
They are far more potent than carbon dioxide and also much more short-lived, lasting from weeks to 10 to 15 years. “If you cut these super pollutants, the warming curve will start to bend right away,” Dr. Ramanathan says. Fortunately, the world has the technology and know-how to do this, he says, including off-the-shelf filters for diesel trucks and options for reducing food waste. In the meantime, “we need to prepare people, build resilience,” because the heat waves will get worse, he says.
Helping people stay safe
On the blistering streets of Maricopa County, the most populous county in Arizona, government officials and nonprofits are trying to do that by building out their network of 240 heat-relief locations, says Brande Mead, human services director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
One of the main providers is the Salvation Army, which has 11 emergency hydration and cooling centers with air conditioning and shaded outdoor misters and “swamp coolers.” They offer water, sunscreen, and bandanas to soak in water and place around the neck, plus lip balm, lotions, and baby powder for skin care. They provide help to seniors and encampments of homeless people – two particularly vulnerable groups for heat.
Heat-related illness and deaths are a “very big deal” in Arizona, which unfortunately leads the nation in the number of migrants who die in the desert, says Daniel Derksen, a health policy expert at the University of Arizona in Tucson. People often don’t realize they need to drink much more water, even after the sun sets and folks go out to play tennis or baseball, he says.
Dr. Derksen remembers growing up in Phoenix, running barefoot to the neighborhood pool, touching down quickly on pavement to get to the next stretch of grassy lawn or shade tree. Now hospitals are treating significant burn cases from contact with asphalt and cement.
In the rainy season when he was in college and medical school, he would drive through a quarter mile or so of lightly flooded dirt road to hunt duck and quail in a playa east of Tucson. That road water has been gone for 20 years, he remarks, and he rarely sees water in the playa. Quail and deer are hard to find, though ranchers provide water for animals.
As for urgency, he sees it in a new administration in Washington that is pushing, for instance, to convert the postal fleet to electric vehicles and in his students, who are energized to contribute to problems that seem intractable, but are not. He points to telehealth – how pandemic necessity accelerated its use and turned a futuristic anomaly into a common practice.
“The same kind of energy can be applied to our drive to protect our environment,” he says. “It’s definitely within our reach.”