How heat be­came a na­tional US prob­lem

The res­i­dents of Phoenix and Philadel­phia ver­sus the heat­wave.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire -

A deadly heat­wave spread over our planet this sum­mer, and the United States was not spared. It was es­pe­cially bad in Cal­i­for­nia, while nu­mer­ous cities across the coun­try recorded higher than usual tem­per­a­tures. They were record high in Phoenix, Ari­zona and Philadel­phia, Penn­syl­va­nia. How did the var­i­ous cities cope with the heat?

On yet an­other day of roast­ing heat in Phoenix, elderly and home­less peo­ple scurry be­tween shards of shade in search of respite at the Marcos De Niza Se­nior Cen­ter. Along with sev­eral dozen other in­sti­tu­tions in the city, it has been set up as a cool­ing cen­tre: a free pub­lic refuge, with air con­di­tion­ing, chilled bot­tled wa­ter, boardgames and books. Last sum­mer a record 155 peo­ple died in Phoenix from ex­cess heat, and the city is strain­ing to avoid a re­peat.

UN­PRECE­DENTED HEAT­WAVE

2. James San­ders, an 83-year-old who goes by King, has lived in the city for 60 years and con­sid­ers him­self ac­cli­ma­tised to the bak­ing south Ari­zona sun. “It does seem hot­ter than it used to be, though,” he says as he picks at his lunch, the tem­per­a­ture hav­ing climbed to 42C out­side. “Maybe it’s my age. Maybe the wind isn’t blow­ing. It can’t get much hot­ter than this though. Can it?” 3. The heat­wave that has re­cently swept the US has put 100 mil­lion Amer­i­cans un­der heat warn­ings; caused power cuts in Cal­i­for­nia where tem­per­a­tures in places such as Palm Springs ap­proached 50C; and re­sulted in deaths from New York to the Mex­i­can bor­der, where peo­ple smug­glers aban­doned their clients in the desert. Fur­ther north, in Canada, more than 70 peo­ple per­ished in the Mon­treal area af­ter a record burst of heat.

4. Record tem­per­a­tures raise wrench­ing ques­tions about the fu­ture vi­a­bil­ity of cities such as Phoenix, where tak­ing a mid­day jog or do­ing a spot of gar­den­ing can pose a deadly risk. Cli­mate change is spurring in­creas­ingly pun­ish­ing heat­waves that are pro­jected to cause tens of thou­sands of deaths in ma­jor US cities in the com­ing decades.

5. “There’s a point where the hu­man body can’t cool it­self, which means you are ei­ther in an air-con­di­tioned space or you’re hav­ing se­ri­ous health prob­lems,” says Gre­gory Wel­le­nius, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist at Brown Univer­sity. “Some places in the US will get to that point. The way we live, work and play will be altered by ris­ing tem­per­a­tures.”

A NA­TIONAL PROB­LEM

6. Heat al­ready kills more Amer­i­cans than floods, hur­ri­canes or other eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters. That puts swel­ter­ing cities like Phoenix – where flights were can­celled last year be­cause it was sim­ply too hot – un­der grow­ing pres­sure. But heat is rapidly be­com­ing a na­tional prob­lem. Re­cent re­search sug­gests warm­ing con­di­tions are lead­ing to sui­cides, as ris­ing night­time tem­per­a­tures de­prive Amer­i­cans of sleep and respite from scorch­ing days. A new study pre­dicts that a warm­ing cli­mate will drive thou­sands to emer­gency rooms for heat ill­ness.

7. A na­tional plan to deal with heat, how­ever, re­mains a dis­tant prospect, as the Trump ad-

Heat al­ready kills more Amer­i­cans than floods, hur­ri­canes or other eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters.

min­is­tra­tion at­tempts to de­mol­ish al­most ev­ery mea­sure to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions. It has also out­lined deep cuts to cli­mate pro­grammes, and steered fed­eral agen­cies away from adapt­ing to more fre­quent and more ex­treme weather events such as heat­waves, flood­ing and stronger storms. For the most part, US cities are fac­ing bur­geon­ing heat­waves on their own.

8. The Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol states that around 650 deaths oc­cur a year due to heat but Wel­le­nius ar­gues that this is too con­ser­va­tive, as heat isn’t al­ways ex­plic­itly cited on death cer­tifi­cates; with re­lated mor­tal­ity the to­tal swells to around 3,500. Cru­cially, the death toll is af­flict­ing US cities that haven’t pre­vi­ously had to spend much time fret­ting about heat.

UN­LIKELY PLACES

9. Re­search pub­lished by Wel­le­nius and col­leagues last year found the bur­den of these deaths is shoul­dered by un­likely places, far from the parched cacti and canyons of the west. The rel­a­tively cooler east­ern cities of Philadel­phia and Bal­ti­more jointly have the most ex­cess deaths due to heat in the en­tire US, at 37 fa­tal­i­ties per mil­lion peo­ple each year, the re­search found. July tem­per­a­tures in Bal­ti­more and Philadel­phia have a long-term av­er­age of around 25C; in Phoenix it’s 34C. In all three cities, as else­where on the planet, the av­er­age is climb­ing.

10. Be­yond set­ting up the cool­ing cen­tres, mainly in li­braries, so far the re­sponse in Philadel­phia has fo­cused on rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness, with city of­fi­cials bom­bard­ing res­i­dents with ad­vice in English and Span­ish to “Stay Cool Philly!”, avoid the sun, drink wa­ter, and check on elderly neigh­bours.

11. “I think some of the other things peo­ple are in the west may be a lit­tle more at­tuned to the is­sues – like don’t jog your five miles at noon, do it at 5am,” says Dr Caro­line John­son, a se­nior of­fi­cial at the Philadel­phia Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health. “Some of that may come as a sur­prise to peo­ple around here.”

IN­EQUAL­I­TIES

12. Much of Philadel­phia’s older hous­ing is packed tightly to­gether in ter­races, with lit­tle air cir­cu­la­tion and no air con­di­tion­ing. Roofs are still slathered in tar, rather than more ex­pen­sive re­flec­tive ma­te­ri­als, trap­ping more heat. “They’re like lit­tle ovens in there,” says John­son. Clus­ters of these houses, largely found in poorer, mi­nor­ity ar­eas in the north and east of the city, can be as much as 4C hot­ter than the Philadel­phia av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to city of­fi­cials. Leafier, wealth­ier suburbs can be as much as 7C cooler than the av­er­age. Be- ing poor of­ten means hot­ter homes, wait­ing in the sun at bus stops rather than sit­ting in air-con­di­tioned Ubers, and be­ing un­able to es­cape to cooler climes on va­ca­tion.

13. “When it gets real hot I try to keep an eye on the older res­i­dents,” says Joann Tay­lor, who has lived in the largely black and Latino district of Hunt­ing Park for 47 years. “They don’t have air con­di­tion­ing, so I just tell them to keep the blinds closed. The houses could do with some up­dates to cope with the heat.”

14. Philadel­phia has em­barked upon a mis­sion to slash its green­house gas emis­sions, plant hun­dreds of thou­sands of new trees, and up­grade its parks in or­der to pro­vide a haven from the warmth. But the spec­tre of a par­tic­u­larly deadly sum­mer feels omi­nously close. With­out a se­vere drop in emis­sions, Philadel­phia will spend around 100 days a year above 32C within 30 years, dou­ble the num­ber of hot days ex­pe­ri­enced in 2000.

(Michael Bryant/AP/SIPA)

Phoenix Philadel­phie Liana Rivera, 6, backs into the spray of a hy­drant in Philadel­phia. 2018 is on pace to be the fourth hottest year on record, af­ter 2016, 2015 and 2017.

(Matt Rourke/AP/SIPA)

Joseph Moore, 80, car­ries a fan do­nated by the Com­cast-Spec­ta­cor Foun­da­tion.

(Matt York/AP/SIPA)

A con­struc­tion crew in Tempe, east of Phoenix, Ari­zona.

(Matt York/AP/SIPA)

Signs war­ing of ex­treme heat are placed on a trail­head at Pi­estewa Peak in Phoenix.

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