A recent network news segment dedicated to weather showed the West baking in all-time record high temperatures. For weeks, much of the West, including Colorado, has endured historic triple-digit heat. Worse, this trend of record heat---compounded by drought---may not be a precursor but a new reality. This weather pattern is forcing scientists to ask, ‘how hot is too hot.’
“I’m pretty concerned from a heat and water perspective,” said Dr. Keah Schuenemann, meteorology professor at Denver’s Metropolitan State University. “We may need to change the definition of drought to ‘new normal.’” If so, it won’t be a change limited to the West or even the U.S. Our blue planet is broiling in this new normal.
During the month of June, heat records were broken in nearly every region on earth, from the Middle East to South Asia, from Scandinavia to southern Europe. Heat records toppled even in cities north of the Arctic Circle. Siberia, one of the coldest places in the world, reached 37 degrees Celsius or 99 degrees Fahrenheit. In the United Arab Emirates, an all-time record was tied with a reading of 125.2°F. Four other Middle Eastern nations recorded temperatures of 122°F.
In the U.S. heat levels have been steadily rising for decades. In 2020, Phoenix recorded 144 days of triple digit heat, a period of just slightly less than five months. In the last century, Phoenix has gone from a city that had only 83 triple-digit days to 144. In essence, the city and region have gained an extra month of summer. The latest date for triple-digit heat was last October 27th, four days before Halloween.
The region’s heat has been exacerbated by its growth which has ballooned in the last seventy years. In 1950, Phoenix had a population of 107,000. Today it is nearly 4.5 million. The asphalt and concrete, essential byproducts of growth, hold in the heat and are major factors for soaring temperatures.
Schuenemann warns that global temperatures are pushing us precariously close to a tipping point and one we may have already reached. Productivity in a variety of sectors, she said, will be impacted. “If you’re trying to build your nation, something as simple as road construction you can’t do when it’s 124 degrees outside.” Agriculture is also high on the list. As productivity suffers, so too will health with everything from heat stroke to respiratory conditions.
In developing nations where even nighttime temperatures offer little respite and air conditioning is a luxury, health is already suffering. In India as well as other countries, hospitals treating everything from COVID to heat exhaustion, have had to shutter because of lack of air conditioning and supply chain interruptions caused elsewhere. Workers whose jobs are outside may also have to reduce their work hours which impacts already meager incomes which, in turn, effect economies. But the heat is just one link in the climate change/global warming chain.
Heat, drought, rising and warming seas, flooding, insect outbreaks, migratory bird patterns, melting ice sheets are all pieces of the climate change puzzle, said Schuenemann. No continent is immune.
Each year, new sections of Australia’s Great Coral Reef, a great indicator of warming ocean waters and barometer of the planet’s health, die; forest fires grow more intense burning through die-offs exacerbated by ever growing insect populations; coastal cities and towns are now almost routinely flooded; greenhouse gas levels rise. The incremental rise in temperatures in far northern climes has even melted ice to the point where new shipping lanes in the Arctic Ocean are now open.
The signs, said Schuenemann, are all around. Nature’s safeguards, including polar ice caps, are threatened. “When we think of arctic ice,” she said, “it’s reflectivity.” It cools the planet by bouncing the sun’s light energy back into space. But scientists now estimate arctic ice is melting at a rate of 1.2 trillion tons each year. Landmark glaciers, remnants of the ice age, are shrinking or simply disappearing in every ocean.
Science attributes much of the rise of global temperatures to steadily increasing use of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. They are also, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the leading source of greenhouse gases which trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet. But fossil fuels drive economies, including those in the United States and China, the two biggest economies in the world. They are also foundational in lesser economies, including Russia whose number natural resource and export is fossil fuel.
Science predicts global temperatures will continue to rise until at least 2070 and, unless there is some kind of cataclysmic event that causes a seismic shift in the thinking, the argument over global warning---including in the U.S. Congress---will continue.
Both Houses of Congress, including current and past members from Colorado, have influential voices still debating the issue. Republicans mainly argue that the science on global warming is either wrong or incomplete. Curtailing the use of oil and gas, they say, will cause the loss of millions of jobs and cripple the economy. Democrats, many of whom support the Green New Deal---legislation that includes a move away from fossil fuels---say it is real and serious. They say that ‘going green,’ will not hurt the economy but actually inspire new technologies and fuel the economy with a whole new generation of jobs.
While market forces, including the Covid-19 pandemic, stalled the economy, staples like oil and gas remain important to Colorado’s economy. Figures differ in calculating the actual impact the industry has on the state, but there is no arguing it adds billions---as much as $13 billion---to the state’s GDP. Whether that is ultimately good for future generations, remains both the quiet and loudest debate. Perhaps, a bit of humor sums things up best.
In the cartoon world there’s a recurring doomsday character looking weary and disheveled, holding a ‘the end is near’ sign. The punchline, sometimes written, other times illustrated, is usually boomeranged bad luck taking dead aim at the prophet. The only question now is, if ‘the end is near,’ how near is near?