How heat be­came a na­tio­nal US pro­blem

Les ha­bi­tants de Phoe­nix et Phi­la­del­phie face à la ca­ni­cule.

Vocable (Anglais) - - Édito Sommaire -

Cet été, une vague de cha­leur meur­trière s’est abat­tue sur la pla­nète et les Etats-Unis n’ont pas été épar­gnés. Si la Ca­li­for­nie a par­ti­cu­liè­re­ment souf­fert, de nom­breuses villes à tra­vers le pays ont en­re­gis­tré des tem­pé­ra­tures beau­coup plus éle­vées que la nor­male. C’est no­tam­ment le cas de Phoe­nix, dans l’Ari­zo­na, et de Phi­la­del­phie, en Penn­syl­va­nie. Comment ces villes ont-elles vé­cu cette vague de cha­leur ?

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.”


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-

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. Being 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)

Lia­na Ri­ve­ra, 6, backs in­to the spray of a hy­drant in Phi­la­del­phia.

(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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