“Like being on the brink of death if you walk.”
That’s how my colleague Jack Healy described living in Phoenix, where it reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) or higher for 13 straight days, with no end in sight.
Jack moved to Phoenix in 2021, chasing stories about the rapidly growing American West. And this week, he filed a remarkable article about the withering heat wave currently scorching the Southwest.
He wrote: “Summers in Phoenix are now a brutal endurance match. As the climate warms, forecasters say dangerous heat levels earlier in the year are lasting longer — often well past Halloween — and locking America’s hottest big city in a sweltering court .
“In triple digit heat, monkey bars singe children’s hands, water bottles warp and seat belts feel like hot irons. Devoted runners strap on headlamps to jog at 4 a.m. when it’s still only 90 degrees, come home drenched in sweat and quickly roll down the sunny shutters. Neighborhoods feel like ghost towns at noon, with whirring rooftop air conditioners offering the only sign of life.”
Jack talked to a mail carrier named Rachelle Williams, who had moved to Phoenix to escape Midwestern winters. No matter how much water she drinks or sunscreen she wears, her legs shake and head spins as she covers her path.
“I don’t even know how I do it,” she said. A community volunteer who distributes water and ice to people in need said the heat felt like “walking in a dryer.”
Jack knows he’s lucky. He has a job that allows him to spend time in air conditioning. However, he had to develop his own coping strategies to live in an outdoor oven.
He starts drinking water as soon as he wakes up, “to saturate your system.” He wears long sleeves and pants “to guard against the sun and the reflected heat from the pavement.” He freezes water bottles and takes them everywhere, “drinking them as they slowly melt.” And he always has electrolytes on hand to replace the salts he sweats out.
One key part of living in Phoenix, Jack told me, is “learning to accept and live with being extraordinarily sweaty all the time.”
The experience of Jack and his companions is increasingly common. California is bracing for a heat wave with triple digit temperatures. Heat advisories are in effect from the Central Plains to South Florida this week. In Texas, 10 residents of Laredo died of heat-related illnesses between June 15 and July 3.
“People are used to being without air conditioning, surviving without air conditioning,” the town doctor told my colleague David Goodman. “But it was too hot, and we lost a lot of people because of it.”
Around the globe, temperatures are soaring as the world enters a multi-year period of intense warming, fueled by man-made climate change and a naturally occurring El Niño weather pattern that releases heat into the atmosphere.
This week, temperatures are approaching 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Seville, Spain; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Marrakesh, Morocco. In places like Kuwait City and Basra, Iraq, it’s not uncommon for the heat index (a combination of air temperature and humidity) to reach 125 degrees in the morning, The Times reported last year.
And just last week, my colleagues in Mexico told me about what it’s like to live in one of that country’s hottest cities, Hermosillo, where a 120-degree day is not uncommon.
But the risks of heat extend far beyond those cities that regularly rank as the hottest in the world. As Somini Sengupta wrote in this newsletter in April, “extreme heat can be deceptively dangerous, even in places accustomed to extreme heat.”
“It’s not just Texas and Southern California and Florida. That’s not the full picture,” said Dr. Kai Chen, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health who studies the health risks of climate change. “People are vulnerable everywhere.”
Dr. Chen and his colleagues recently revealed interactive map of the United States which shows how vulnerable different parts of the country are to extreme heat.
Their research revealed that people in Costilla County, Colo.; Marion County, Ind.; and Essex County, Mass., are also at high risk of boiling temperatures as heat waves affect more and more of the country.
Dr. Chen and his team considered factors such as income and education level, and how much green space neighborhoods have and whether people live alone.
Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, their research showed that in wealthier neighborhoods – where people are more likely to have air conditioning and do less work outside – the risks of extreme heat were less severe. In neighborhoods with lower incomes and fewer trees, the risks skyrocketed.
“What we found is that for people who have a low socioeconomic status, especially minorities, the health risks of heat are much higher,” Dr. Chen said.
Whether you’re in Phoenix, Baghdad, or New York, it’s important to know how to stay cool, stay hydrated, and watch for signs of heat stress and heat stroke. All that and more is explained in this helpful guide to dealing with the heat.
Beating heat with the whitest white
The whitest paint ever is in the Guinness Book of World Records, but that is not its greatest achievement.
The paint, created by Purdue University scientists, cools buildings by bouncing 98 percent of the sun’s rays away from the Earth’s surface, up through the atmosphere and into deep space.
It looks no different than regular white paint from the hardware store, which absorbs significant heat from the sun. In comparison, the Purdue paint cools surfaces to sub-ambient temperatures – by up to eight degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and 19 degrees at night. That could reduce air conditioning use and help power grids struggling to cope with heat waves, as the paint doesn’t need energy to operate.
Using the ultra-reflective paint, which is at least a year after being ready for commercial use, could help offset the urban heat island effect. But there are limits to this type of cooling. We still need to stop sending greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to avoid more catastrophic warming, according to Jeremy Munday, an expert on clean technology.
“This is definitely not a long-term solution to the climate problem,” he told my colleague Cara Buckley. “This is something you can do in the short term to mitigate worse problems while you’re trying to get everything under control.”
– Manuela Andreoni
Other climate news
The weather report
A warm dome of high pressure over the Southwest will strengthen through the weekend, pushing temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit from parts of California to Texas. While the air will be dry, temperatures could reach record heat values, creating an extreme risk of heat-related illness.
The area of sweltering temperatures will expand on Friday, especially over the northwestern section of the country. From East Texas through the Southeast and into Florida, humidity can make temperatures as hot as 105 to 115 degrees, and possibly higher.
Coastal states in the South will experience above-average temperatures combined with high humidity, exacerbated by unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic, creating dangerous conditions, especially along the coasts from South Texas to the Carolinas.
Urban areas can often be several degrees warmer than surrounding areas, with less relief at night. The heat is expected to last until next week, and may expand further east and north.
–Judson Jones and Camille Baker