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  July 26, 2017

Is Extreme Heat the New Normal?

The Real News team spoke with first responders and science and medial experts in Arizona, where high temperatures have grounded planes and significantly increased health emergencies
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OSCAR LEON: Record breaking temperatures have gripped Phoenix, Arizona.

Why are you using gloves?

JESS: To protect my hands from the heat, from basically the metal on the carts.

OSCAR LEON: You burn yourself so far?

JESS: When I don't have them on, yes.

OSCAR LEON: Right now, we have 109 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona, which is pretty hot, but this seems to normal here. However, last week, there were many days where records were broken.

On Sunday, June 18, Phoenix reached 118 degrees with nearby Tucson hitting 115. Yuma, Arizona soared to 120 degrees. That's the city's fourth hottest day on record. On Tuesday, June 20, Phoenix record its fourth hottest day ever as well reaching 119 degrees. On June 21, officially the first day of the summer, it got so hot that planes were grounded. The forecast was 117 Fahrenheit and by 10:00 PM the temperature was reading 103 Fahrenheit. On social media, you can find pictures of people driving with oven mittens or trying to keep cool with ice packs in their cars. Dogs using shoes to walk in the pavement. Are these record highs a symptom of climate change?

RANDALL CERVENY: High temperature records are being broken more frequently now than ever before, so that may be an indication that Earth is getting hot, become a hotter place.

OSCAR LEON: Randall Cerveny is a President's Professor at Arizona State University Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning School. He's also the rapporteur on extreme records for the World Meteorological Organization.

RANDALL CERVENY: With the increase of anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the most common scenarios that we see in the models is that not so much the high temperatures are getting higher, although they are slightly, the bigger thing is that our low temperatures for the day are getting much higher. Back 20, 30 years ago in Phoenix, Arizona, we rarely had temperatures that were in the 90s for lows. Today, during the summertime, we'll have several days where 90 degrees or higher is actually our low temperature for the day.

OSCAR LEON: Last year between June 14 and July 14, 2016, Phoenix Fire Regional Call Center dispatch 279 assignments under the code of heat related illness. For the same 30 day period in 2017, Phoenix Call Center dispatch 977 assignments under the same code. That's 498 calls than last year for the same time period.

RANDALL CERVENY: The first sign for a heat stroke is heat exhaustion. That's when you start feeling nauseous, maybe some vomiting, kind of dizzy, you get tired, some muscle cramps, real sweaty, and that's heat exhaustion. That's something we have to be conscious of and it's important for people to realize that the temperatures here are much higher than where they're probably from and they need to drink lots of water. That water needs to start 24 hours ahead of time. Drinking it as soon as you start feeling thirsty or tired, it's too late at that point. It's still important to drink at that point, but it's too late to combat those signs of the heat exhaustion. It's important to start drinking lots of water about 24 hours ahead of time.

OSCAR LEON: Captain Axelrod from the Phoenix Fire Department warns that heat stroke can take over very fast often with progressive symptoms that could go unnoticed until it's too late.

BRIAN AXELROD: Heat exhaustion, if it's not treated, if somebody doesn't get water, doesn't cool off, then it turns into heat stroke. Heat stroke is they're no longer sweaty. They start to get real dry skin. Their skin starts to get real hot. They're still nauseous. They're maybe a little lethargic. Their heart rate will start to elevate. Their respiratory rate can also slow down and they can become unconscious. That's a very serious life threatening emergency.

OSCAR LEON: One of the hardest things to do to survive here in the heat in the sun in Arizona is when you leave your car in the sun, let's say you're working, you're at school, whatever, you come out, open the door, wow, it's like when you're cooking and you open the door of the oven to see if your food is ready. Well, here in Phoenix, Arizona, your food is ready because this is extremely hot.

In past weeks we have seen many examples of people cooking all kind of stuff in the cars. To understand the science behind this, I visit Arizona State University where I met Dr. Ariane Middel, a German scientist specializing in heat mitigation, who's conducting very precise measuring temperatures at the ASU campus.

ARIANE MIDDEL: This is a mean radiant temperature card. It measures how you experience air temperature in a hot dry desert like Phoenix. It has an air temperature humidity sensor. This is similar to a sensor you would find at the airport. It has a wind speed and direction sensor, a GPS so that we know the cart's location, and then these are three pairs of net radiometers. Those measure the incoming and outgoing radiation, so it measures the radiation from the direct sunlight, that's the short wave. It measures the long wave radiation, that's the heat that's emitted from surfaces that have been sun exposed. We measure this in all six directions. There are two front and back, two left and right, and then two up and down facing sensors, so that we get the radiation at 360 degree, basically all sides that hit a human body.

OSCAR LEON: This card carries a system that the local scientists call [inaudible] because it measures radiant temperature. Ariane uses it to check reading in different parts of the campus and the city of Phoenix. Recording the findings to validate the accuracy of results by computer models that predict temperature. The goal is to develop an application that can [inaudible] you through hot humid environments. Not along the [inaudible] part, but along the most comfortable and shaded part.

ARIANE MIDDEL: If the air temperature at the airport is 120 degrees Fahrenheit, mean radiant temperature can vary much, much more than the air temperature data from the airport. On a field work trip in June, on June 19, which was a record breaking heat day, I measured mean radiant temperatures of up to 75 degrees Celsius.

RANDALL CERVENY: The big heat wave that took place at first part of this century in Europe killed hundreds of people, but the problem was that the infrastructure wasn't built to handle it. They didn't have air conditioning for most parts in places like France. In the late '90s, there was a heat wave that centered itself over Chicago, Illinois, and over 500 people died within a two week period. It shows that heat waves in places that can't handle the heat can be tremendously bad and given the fact that more high temperature records are being broken around the country and around the world, likelihood of having the potential for more heat waves increases.

OSCAR LEON: What's perhaps more alarming is that the Trump Administration is rolling back fossil fuel regulations and denies climate change is even real. For more of our coverage, visit


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