Hot Stuff

A cat tries to stay cool. I wish I could lie on an air conditioner like that. (Courtesy of ICN message board.)

Monday never felt so good.

After five days of staggering 90-plus degree weather, Boston, Mass, and other cities across New England, welcomed cooler temperatures in the mid-80s and rain today, ending the season’s first official heat wave.

heat wave – a series of days with above average temperatures for a given region that creates a safety hazard for those exposed to the heat.

The East Coast’s heat blitz comes on the coattails of a historic heat wave out west. In late June, Death Valley experienced 129 degrees Fahrenheit—just shy of the July 10, 1913 world record of 134 degrees Fahrenheit from the same California desert. (For details on why the Death Valley is a heat magnet, go here.) Phoenix saw 119 degrees Fahrenheit degrees. Las Vegas saw up to 117 degrees Fahrenheit. At least one person died in Las Vegas from the heat.

climate change – changes in the earth’s climate due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions

We all know summer is supposed to be hot, but should it be this hot? Is climate change to blame, or are other factors at play? And what are people thinking about the heat—assuming they can even form a coherent thought in these dizzying temperatures?

After every hurricane, tornado, flood, and heat wave, meteorologists and climate scientists alike offer up a consistent two-pronged answer. First, no particular weather event can be attributed to climate change. Second, climate change models/science predict that extreme weather events will become (and in some cases, already are becoming) more frequent.

In other words, it is difficult to say that this year’s heat waves, or any other heat wave, are a result of climate change. But the science is clear about frequency: With climate change, these sizzling stretches will become more common.

Feeling is Believing

Scientists might not say this heat wave is a manifest of climate change, but the general public may disagree. As the seasons change, so do people’s opinions about global warming and climate change.

In recent years, many polls have identified a certain pattern in risk perception: If a winter is particularly mild, people are more likely to believe in global warming. If a winter is particularly cold, they are not.

The same can be said for summers and heat. If a summer is very hot, people are more likely to believe in global warming. And if a summer is cooler, or milder, people are less likely to believe the climate is changing.

Part of this perception phenomenon has to do with the terms “global warming” versus “climate change.” In recent years, journalists and scientists alike have tried to back away from the limiting term “global warming.” This is because different places will experience climate change differently–some places will see warmer temperatures, other places will see cooler temperatures; some locations will see more rain, other regions will see increased droughts. Different environmental factors, such as topography, geography, and elevation, dictate a given area’s climate patterns and how those patterns will change in the future.

For now, people still cling to the term “global warming” and judging each season accordingly.

Death by Heat

Heat kills. According to the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Red Cross, an average 175 Americans die each year due to direct heat effects, whether from a heat stroke, heat cramps, or heat exhaustion. This is because the human body cannot handle prolonged high temperatures. Under those conditions, the body stops being able to produce sweat. Sweat is the main way humans are able to cool themselves. If you stop sweating, the brain is the first part of the body to take notice–and its not pretty.

The human brain is a like a computer hard drive, and if your hard drive over heats, it stops being able to process information and breaks down. A similar process happens to the brain, which under extreme heat loses the ability to think coherently and potentially knocks you unconscious. Other parts of the body can suffer heat affects too, such as the kidneys, although their specific heat responses are less known.

The NWS created a Heat Index to correlate heat-related disorders and temperatures. See below:

130° or higher Heatstrokes/sunstrokes are highly likely w/cont. exposure
105° – 130° Sunstroke, heat cramps or heat exhaustion are likely, & heatstrokes are possible w/prolonged exposure &/or physical activity; temps recorded last month in SW corner of the country
90° – 105° Sunstroke, heat cramps and heat exhaustion are possible w/prolonged exposure &/or physical activity; temps recently experienced across New England
  80° – 90° Fatigue is possible w/prolonged exposure &/or physical activity

So what should you do if the temperatures climb in your area? Stay cool!

Fun Fact: July is National Ice Cream Month and this year, July 21 is National Ice Cream Day!

To survive the heat, I have a trusty three-part plan: drink lots of water, feast on ice cream, and stay in the shade.

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