The Heat is On: Reflections on the Warmest Summer on Record
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? – William Blake
If there was any question that things are heating up here on Planet Earth, the brutally hot summer we’re experiencing in the Northern Hemisphere has put those doubts to rest—at least in my mind.
We are living through the single-hottest month ever recorded on earth, scientists say. A third of the United States is under extreme heat advisories. In Phoenix, which has had 21 straight days of 110-plus-degree heat, houses are turning into air fryers as the roofs radiate intense heat down into living quarters. Air conditioners have become lifelines for Arizonians and others in the Southwest, although residents are needing to ration their use of the A/C to keep their utility bills from getting too high.
Being a cool-weather guy, I don’t think I’ll be making a trip to the Southwest anytime soon. Or Europe, for that matter. Countries across Europe and Asia are also experiencing record-high temperatures—a big problem given that, unlike here in the U.S., the majority of people in Europe and other countries don’t have air conditioning.
Excessive heat isn’t just uncomfortable; it can be lethal, as climate journalist Jeff Goodell reminds us in his book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. It’s a little-known fact that heat kills more people around the world each year than fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and other weather-related conditions. As global temperatures continue to rise, we’re bound to see more deaths and illnesses from heat, Goodell cautions in his book.
Heat poses big dangers even for those who are in good shape. Goodell tells a tragic story of a young, fit couple who died while hiking in the heat in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Excessive heat raises our blood pressure, stresses our organs, exacerbates asthma and breathing conditions, and causes other long-term health issues.
It can all happen quickly too. I had a friend who recently went to a Phillies’ baseball game on a hot afternoon. Halfway through the game, she passed out from heat stroke and had to be taken to the hospital.
We Pennsylvanians have been blessed, relatively speaking, with our weather this summer. While we’ve had some hot, humid days here, we have yet to record a 100-plus-degree day (knock on wood). In the northeastern part of the state where I have my mountain house, I’ve only had to use the A/C a few days so far to cool down the house in the late afternoons. The rest of the day, I keep the windows open to enjoy the cool air that I, for one, thrive on.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced any effects of global warming here in Pennsylvania this summer. Out-of-control wildfires to the north of us in Canada, which is experiencing its most destructive wildfire season in history, have spread haze across Pennsylvania and other parts of the Northeast. The haze was worse last month, but even this week while up at the house I’ve been seeing the haze obscuring the usually crystal-clear views of the Endless Mountains.
Then there is the flash flooding. In nearby Bucks County, five people were killed and two children remain missing after flash floods last weekend washed away cars along a rain-swollen creek in Upper Makefield Township. The tragic flooding came after a month’s worth of rain fell in the area in 45 minutes.
I’ve always been fascinated by the weather. I frequently find myself going into the weather app to check the forecast and follow an approaching storm on the radar. I love a good thunderstorm, love watching the dark clouds roll in, seeing the lightning flash in the distance, hearing the rumbles of thunder and the sound of the rain drumming on the roof. There’s something thrilling about being inside the house when a storm is going on outside, seeing the show while knowing you’re safe.
But a thunderstorm is one thing. Hurricanes, tornadoes, flash flooding and 110-degree heat are quite another. Extreme weather events take us beyond the thrill of spectatorship into a whole other realm of danger where the very house or car we're in could be ripped away from beneath us.
In this blog, I often write about the beneficial aspects of being around nature—the healing and rejuvenation it can bring to our spirit, the lessons it can teach us about resilience and tenacity.
But as Blake reminds us in his poem, nature can be a tiger in lamb’s clothes. Mother Nature is both beautiful and fearsome. She nurtures and feeds us with her bounty, but also punishes us with her scolding hand.
The fact is, mankind’s relationship with nature has always been a love-hate relationship. We depend on her but also fear her wrath. We’re in awe of her beauty and majesty, but we are also at war with her—a war that is necessary for our very survival.
Our biggest weapon in this love-hate relationship with Mother Nature is our human brain. Humans aren’t the biggest, fastest, or fiercest of the mammals, but we have something they don’t: ingenuity. We use our brains to craft tools that enable us to control and master our environments.
It is technology that has allowed us to put eight billion people on Planet Earth. To erect cities, to fly planes and launch satellites, to eradicate viruses and fight diseases.
It’s also human technologies that release the greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat and raise the temperatures of our air and oceans. At least, that’s what the science tells us.
I’m not a scientist myself, so I can’t say with certainty what is going on. I can hope that what’s happening with our weather is nothing more than a short-term pattern and things will return to “normal”—normal being what I and others of my generation grew up with.
But it’s hard to argue with what I have experienced in my own lifetime. Winters are getting shorter and milder here in the Northeast. Snow is becoming rarer.
Everything changes, nothing stays the same, so why should we think otherwise when it comes to the climate? Whether the cause is natural or man-made, we’re going to need to do something to stem the tide (excuse the pun) of climate change.
Where all this is going, I don’t know. I worry about the future and what it will be like for my kids and future generations.
But I am also hopeful, and what most gives me hope is that amazing human ingenuity. Technologies like solar glass, environmental sensors, smart grids, and carbon-capture systems promise to make the future world a greener, more sustainable one.
In short, no need to panic, but I’m not sticking my head in the sand either.
A big shoutout to all the amazing scientists out there working on the problem of climate change. I have nothing but admiration for the work you’re doing. If I had to do things over again, I would be a climate scientist, so that I could do more about the weather than simply watching it on my phone.