The West sizzles — even at midnight

Climate change and the urban heat islands take their toll from Phoenix to Portland.


This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

In Southern California, the Badwater Basin weather station in Death Valley National Park reached 119.6 degrees Fahrenheit on July 17. That may seem unremarkable — this is Death Valley, after all, where the visitor center is named after Furnace Creek. But this brain-roasting temperature was recorded not at the hottest point of the day, but at midnight. By 5 a.m., it had cooled down to a relatively refreshing 107 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is just an extreme example of the brutal heat wave that has gripped a good swath of the Western U.S. for much of the summer, endangering public health, increasing wildfire risk, straining the power grid and rendering cities nearly uninhabitable. It should serve as yet another alarm bell reminding us that human-caused climate change is here. Urgent action is needed on many fronts — including, yes, a halt to fossil fuel combustion and its greenhouse gas emissions. But we also need to overhaul our built environment to make it and the people who live in it more resilient to the impacts of global warming.

In Death Valley, California, a temperature of 119.6 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at midnight earlier this month.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Unlike last September’s California heat wave or the deadly scorcher in the Northwest in June 2021, this one isn’t smashing all-time high temperature records. (Death Valley reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit, a few degrees short of the record.) That’s led some on social media to downplay the calamity: It’s summer. It’s the desert. It’s hot. It’s normal!

Uh, no, this ain’t normal, folks. It’s utterly abnormal, whether you’re going by the dictionary definition of “normal” or the meteorological* one. The mercury has shot past 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix every day for a month. Not normal. The minimum temperature in Phoenix has stayed above 90 for almost as long. Not normal. This heat wave’s unusual severity stems from its long duration — we’ll be a month into it by the time this reaches your e-mailbox — combined with the unusually hot nighttime temperatures, which exacerbate the impacts of those daytime highs. And the suffering is by no means confined to Phoenix or the Southwest or even the entire U.S. Much of the globe is boiling, from Athens to Asia.

In the Southwest, the recent heat derives, in part, from a “heat dome,” a ridge of high pressure that traps warm air like a giant atmospheric blanket. A stagnant jet stream — likely a byproduct of human-caused climate change — has allowed the heat dome to stick around and wear out its welcome. Add this regional weather pattern to the effects of the El Niño climate phenomenon and today’s accelerating global warming, and what do you get? Well, the planet as a whole experienced its warmest June on record this year, with July 6 being the hottest day on Earth on record — and possibly the hottest day in the last 125,000 years.

The connections between climate and weather aren’t always obvious. June was unusually cool in the Southwest, for example, even as the planet as a whole was sweltering. And the winter and spring were wet and snowy enough to render Colorado 100% drought-free — for a while, at least — allowing many of us to (briefly) forget that we are in the midst of one of the most severe dry spells of the millennium. But zoom out a bit and climate change’s fingerprints become increasingly visible in the upward temperature trends, most dramatically displayed at night, when we traditionally expect some relief from the heat, even in the desert. That nighttime alleviation is getting rarer, especially in urban heat islands, where concrete, asphalt, steel and glass act as thermal mass, storing up warmth during the day and exuding it through the night.

Due in large part to Phoenix's heat island effect, nighttime temperatures have remained high - often over 90 degrees Fahrenheit - for weeks on end.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

This kind of round-the-clock torridity, most pronounced in Phoenix or Las Vegas but increasingly common everywhere, can quickly cause the human body to go haywire. Prolonged exposure short-circuits the renal system, causing the brain to swell, blood pressure to drop, heart rate to increase and blood clots to form. Just a minute of contact with sun-baked concrete or asphalt can produce third-degree burns. Last year, the cascading failure caused by this heat proved fatal for more than 400 people in greater Phoenix.

The solution is obvious: Stay inside a well-insulated house, set the AC to “Arctic” and watch Oppenheimer or Barbie or both. It’s obvious, I should say, unless you have to work outside. Or unless you don’t live in a well-insulated, air-conditioned home. And not all Westerners live in cool, well-insulated homes. Many, in fact, lack housing altogether.

Some 75,000 people are unhoused across the greater Los Angeles metro area, according to the latest count. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s unhoused population is about 10,000, half of whom live on the streets and are exposed to the brutal elements both day and night. Hundreds live in the “Zone,” a collection of tents and ramshackle shelters in an especially pavement- and concrete-saturated area of the heat island. The city has been clearing the encampment for the last couple of months, leaving the unhoused utterly unsheltered. The housing crisis and climate crisis collide.

Construction workers and others who work outside are especially vulnerable to the extreme temperatures seen across the West this summer.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Like most natural disasters, heat disproportionately affects people of color and those who live in lower-income neighborhoods, in yet another manifestation of the way that hierarchies of race and wealth ripple throughout society, creating gaping inequalities in human health, quality of life, opportunity, and so forth.

The West’s most affordable housing is often mobile homes — some 90,000 are scattered across the Phoenix metro area — and many of them become aluminum-clad ovens in the summer. According to Arizona State UniversityKnowledge Exchange for Resilience, mobile home residents comprise about one-third of the regions heat-related deaths. Poorer neighborhoods are hotter because they tend to have fewer trees or green spaces to mitigate the urban heat islands, and the residents are less likely to be able to afford air-conditioning equipment or the electricity to run it. Look at an infrared map of a Southwestern city showing vegetation-density and moisture indices, and you’ll see that the amount of plant life in a particular neighborhood often corresponds uncannily with its demographics.

Extreme heat ultimately spares no one, not even the 1%. It seeps into the most insulated person’s everyday life. It sends folks scampering from air-conditioned cars across scorching parking lots to air-conditioned buildings like insects on speed. The puppy’s paws burn as she trots across the driveway. Wildlife suffers. The morning run becomes dangerous, airplane passengers stranded on the tarmac without AC pass out and vomit, medical choppers cannot fly, summer hikes turn deadly. Productivity drops, mental health suffers, crime goes up. The relentless sun bakes all the vegetation from the wet winter, turning it into fuel for fires that spread their smoke across the world. Even without the fires, the air quality deteriorates as high temperatures drive up ozone pollution.

Greek officials have shut down the Acropolis in Athens, one of the most popular tourist sites in the world, due to the heat. Crawling up onto a big sunny rock in 100+ Fahrenheit temperatures was deemed too dangerous. And yet some tourists seem to revel in the extremity. After all, this month, when it looked like the mercury would break records, visitors flocked to Death Valley in droves. I suppose they were hoping to get a sneak preview of the apocalypse — or maybe just their own everyday future.

Phoenix's primarily Latino, lower-income Edison-Eastlake neighborhood has a disproportionately high rate of heat-related illness and death compared to the rest of the city.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Some numbers:

86.9 degrees Fahrenheit
Average temperature this June in Needles, California, 6.1 degrees below normal*.

114.8 degrees Fahrenheit
Average temperature of the first 24 days of this July in Needles, 4.3 degrees above normal.

102.8 degrees Fahrenheit
Average temperature of the first 24 days of July in Phoenix, 7.2 degrees above normal.

Number of daily and monthly highest maximum temperature records broken or tied in the Western U.S. during the first two weeks of July.

Number of daily and monthly highest minimum temperature records broken or tied in the Western U.S. during the first three weeks of July.

Number of consecutive days, so far, that Phoenix’s minimum temperature remained above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous record was seven days.

Number of consecutive days, so far, that Phoenix’s maximum temperature exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit (13 of which were 115 Fahrenheit or higher). The previous record streak was 18 days, set in 1974.

Megawatts of power Salt River Project delivered to Phoenix-area customers on July 15, an all-time high.

97 degrees Fahrenheit
The nighttime low temperature in Phoenix on July 19, a new record high. The mercury bottomed out at this level at 6:45 a.m. By 7:50 a.m. it had climbed back up to 100 Fahrenheit.

108 degrees Fahrenheit
Average temperature in Phoenix on July 19, a new record high and 12 degrees above normal.

Number of utility customers in Mesa, Arizona, who lost power — and air conditioning — during the heat wave when the mercury topped out at 119 degrees Fahrenheit.

Months Phoenix has gone without measurable precipitation as of July 23. 

*Normal, in meteorology, is based on complex statistical calculations of temperature and precipitation for the latest three decades, which in this case would be 1991-2020. This may seem odd, since that time period was, itself, quite warmer than the previous three decades, and so on. But hey, that’s just how the National Weather Service does things.

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time 

On the 2020 campaign trail, then-candidate Joe Biden promised to end oil and gas development on public lands. He hasn’t lived up to the ambitious pledge, but his administration has taken a step or two to slow the industry down. Since Biden took office, the Bureau of Land Management has issued fewer drilling permits per month, on average, than his predecessor, and leased out far fewer acres of land. Now the administration is looking to make the first meaningful reforms to the federal oil and gas program since Congress passed the General Mineral Leasing Act in 1920. It proposes raising royalty rates from 12.5% to 16.67%, which will give taxpayers a better return for their oil and gas, while increasing reclamation bonds significantly. High Country News’ Nick Bowlin gives the rundown. | High Country News


Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, D, shattered a proud Arizona tradition by stepping up and trying to tackle the climate change thats wreaking high-temperature havoc in her state. This month, Hobbs added Arizona to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of governors looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This follows what the Arizona Republics Allie Feinberg euphemistically described as a “recent lull in Arizona’s presence on the stage of climate policy.” Which is to say Hobbspredecessors have actively obstructed efforts to fight or even monitor climate change. Meanwhile, over in Nevada, Gov. Joe Lombardi, a Republican, withdrew his state from the same alliance, saying its goals “conflict with Nevada’s energy policy objectives,” according to a Nevada Independent piece by Amy Alonzo. In unrelated news: The average daily temperature in Las Vegas exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit for seven consecutive days this month. | Arizona Republic, Nevada Independent

The West’s wildfire season got a mercifully slow start this year, thanks in large part to the wet and cool spring. As of July 23, only 819,000 acres had burned nationwide this year; last year, a whopping 5.5 million acres had gone up in flames by this date. But the extreme heat dried out the vegetation, and now blazes are breaking out across the region, with the most severe in the Northwest. The Newell Road Fire in Klickitat County, Washington, broke out on the afternoon of Friday, July 21. By the following Monday, it had exploded to more than 50,000 acres, racing through solar and wind facilities and wheat fields. It’s burning just upstream on the Columbia River from the Tunnel Five Fire, which threatened homes and structures earlier in July. | KOIN 


Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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