Day and night, Phoenix has sweltered from heat that will break a record

Published 5:24 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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PHOENIX — Phoenix’s streak of dangerously hot days was poised to smash a record for major U.S. cities on Tuesday, the 19th straight day the temperature in the desert city was to soar to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 C) or more.

The nights have offered little relief from the brutal heat. Phoenix’s overnight low only dropped to 94 F (34.4 C) on Tuesday, the ninth straight day of temperatures not falling below 90 F (32.2 C), another record.

It’s “pretty miserable when you don’t have any recovery overnight,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Salerno.

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The thermometer reached 100 F (37.8 C) before 9 a.m. for the sixth straight day on Tuesday.

The length of Phoenix’s heat wave is notable even during a summer in which much of the southern United States and the world as a whole has been cooking in record temperatures, something scientists say is stoked by climate change.

“It’s the longest streak that we’ve ever seen in this country,” said NOAA Climate Analysis Chief Russell Vose, who chairs a committee on national records. “When you have several million people subjected to that sort of thermal abuse, there are impacts.”

What’s going on in a metropolitan area known as the Valley of the Sun is far worse than a short spike in the thermometer, experts said, and it poses a health danger to many.

Ripples of sweat streamed down the sunburned face of Lisa Miccichi, 38, as she pushed a shopping cart filled with her belongings through downtown Phoenix on Tuesday, looking for a place to get out of the heat.

“I’ve been out here a long time and homeless for about three years,” said Miccichi. “When it’s like this, you just have to get into the shade. This last week has been the hottest I ever remember.”

The last time Phoenix didn’t reach 110 F (43.3 C) was June 29, when it hit 108 (42.2 C). On Monday, the city set a new record with the temperature not dropping below 95 (35 C).

City Parks and Recreation workers Joseph Garcia, 48, and Roy Galindo, 28, tried to stay cool as they trimmed shrubs in central Phoenix.

“We drink a lot of Gatorade that our supervisor brings us, not just water,” said Garcia, adding that they work from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to avoid the hottest time of the day.

“It gets super hot out here and sometimes we have to take care of the public,” said Galindo, adding he sometimes find people passed out on the grass. “A lot of these people aren’t drinking water.”

Vose and other experts found no large cities with a run of heat like Phoenix’s. But smaller places such as Death Valley and Needles in California and Casa Grande in Arizona have had longer streaks. Death Valley has had an 84-day streak of 110-degree temperatures and a 47-day streak of nighttime temperatures not going below 90, Vose said.

Phoenix’s heat wave has both long and short-term causes, said Arizona State University’s Randy Cerveny, who coordinates weather record verification for the World Meteorological Organization.

“The long-term is the continuation of increasing temperatures in recent decades due to human influence on climate, while the short-term cause is the persistence over the last few weeks of a very strong upper level ridge of high pressure over the western United States,” he said.

That high pressure, also known as a heat dome, has been around the Southwest for weeks, and when it moved, it moved to be even more centered on Phoenix than ever, Smith said.

All of the southern U.S. has been under a heat dome with temperature records shattered from California to Florida and the globe itself is the hottest its been on record for much of the summer.

The high pressure in the Southwest also prevents cooling rain and clouds from bringing relief, Smith said. Normally, the Southwest’s monsoon season kicks in around mid-June. But Phoenix has not had measurable rain since March.

Thunderstorms south of the city Monday generated a large wall of dust that swept through, giving residents an unsatisfying taste of the summer rainy season that typically provides relief from the scorching heat. Such dust storms are pretty common this time of year, but this one was particularly big, meteorologists said.

“Unfortunately, the chance of getting storms are actually lower the next few days, so it was a little tease,” said Sean Benedict, lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Phoenix. “We’ll get it eventually.”

The heat wave is “a harbinger of things to come given that the most reliable projected impacts of climate change are those that are directly related to the increase in global temperatures,” said Katharine Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

Since 1983, Phoenix’s average daily summer temperature has increased 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius), its daily high temperature has gone up 3.2 degrees (1.8 degrees Celsius) and its nighttime low has gone up 4.4 degrees (2.4 degrees Celsius), according to NOAA.

“The changing climate along with urban heating are certainly exacerbating the warmer temperatures and making them more frequent,” Smith said.

Such heat can hit Indian Country particularly hard. Jacobs said about 30% of the population of the Hopi and Navajo reservations lack running water and air conditioning and aren’t near cooling centers. That’s especially unfair because “tribal members have contributed very little to greenhouse gas concentrations,” she said.

A study published two years ago in the journal Nature Communications found that people of color face more extreme temperatures compared to non-Hispanic white people.

Phoenix’s majority Hispanic neighborhoods tend to have less tree canopy than other parts of the city.

And one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city is Edison-Eastlake, a historically Black neighborhood that has become majority Latino, where in past years temperatures have reached as much as 10 degrees higher than other parts of the city.