How heat became a national US problem
The residents of Phoenix and Philadelphia versus the heatwave.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Joseph Moore, 80, carries a fan donated by the Comcast-Spectacor Foundation.
A construction crew in Tempe, east of Phoenix, Arizona.
Signs waring of extreme heat are placed on a trailhead at Piestewa Peak in Phoenix.