Hellish Heat Grips Half The Country

The current wave of sweltering temperatures and humidity is a preview of life in a warming world.

If we were in the middle of a spell of cold weather, President Donald Trump would be racing to Twitter to fire off a tirade about how the world could really use some global warming.

But as a potentially deadly and record-setting heat wave grips the country ― the type of event that Trump’s own government scientists recently warned will become more frequent and severe due to human-caused climate change ― it’s unlikely he’ll have much to say.

More than half of the mainland United States, from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast, has been engulfed by extreme temperatures and high humidity since early this week. The National Weather Service on Thursday said the “widespread and dangerous” heat wave will persist into the weekend. The heat index, a measurement of how hot it feels when accounting for humidity, is expected to soar to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in cities like New York, Washington, Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

As of Thursday, 154 million Americans were under heat advisories or warnings, according to The Washington Post. And many people in the heat wave’s path can expect little relief at night, as the urban heat island effect will prevent major urban centers from cooling off after the sun goes down. More than 120 record warm overnight low temperatures will likely be tied or broken, according to the Weather Service.

Extreme heat is a leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, resulting in an average 658 fatalities each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thousands more suffer from heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and stroke. The elderly, children, poor people and people who have manual labor jobs outdoors are among the most vulnerable during heat waves.

On Tuesday, as sweltering heat began to take hold of the central and eastern U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report saying that without swift action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, the number of days per year in the U.S. when the heat index exceeds 100 degrees could more than double by 2050 and quadruple by the end of the century.

“Our analysis shows a hotter future that’s hard to imagine today,” Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at UCS and a co-author of the report, said in a statement. “Nearly everywhere, people will experience more days of dangerous heat even in the next few decades.”

A roofer works on a home under construction in Houston Thursday. A heat wave is expected to send temperatures soaring close to 100 degrees through the weekend across much of the country.
A roofer works on a home under construction in Houston Thursday. A heat wave is expected to send temperatures soaring close to 100 degrees through the weekend across much of the country.

The findings mirror those of the 4th National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated federal report, published late last year, that concluded the number of heat waves has increased since the mid-1960s and is projected to keep rising as the climate crisis worsens.

“If we continue to burn fossil fuels, pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and warm up the planet, we are going to see more prolonged and more extreme heat waves,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, told NBC News this week. “That’s playing out now in real time. We saw that last summer. We’re seeing that again this summer.”

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre on Tuesday put out a lengthy guidebook to help cities around the globe prepare for potentially lethal heat. It includes tips on establishing early warning systems, setting up community cooling stations and painting surfaces white to reflect heat. It also advises companies to provide shelters and drinking-water stations for outdoor workers, and to come up with emergency response plans to deal with major heat waves.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that employers protect workers from hazardous work conditions, but it does not have a federal standard for working in hot conditions. A coalition of more than 130 labor, public health and environmental organizations filed a petition last year that called on OSHA to establish a national standard for heat stress. The group cited the threat planetary warming poses to agriculture workers and other laborers.

This month, House Democrats introduced a bill that would direct OSHA to set federal safeguards for workplace heat exposure. The bill is named after Asuncion Valdivia, a farmworker who died while picking grapes in 105-degree heat.

“Unfortunately, this brutal heat wave is just a taste of what’s ahead,” David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program, one of the groups that organized last year’s petition to OSHA, said in an email. “If we don’t act quickly to mitigate the climate crisis, people all over the country will soon face vastly different weather than they’re used to, with a steep rise in dangerous heat.”