Someday, we were told, we would feel the effects of all the gas and coal we burned on this Earth. Someday we would face heat waves hotter and longer than we have ever known.
Someday has arrived.
This summer, at work and at play, indoors and outdoors, in neighborhoods rich and poor, Americans are facing a persistent new reality: extreme heat. In June and July the country experienced temperatures ranging from 90 to 111 degrees. At least 42 different locations in the U.S. set or tied their hottest July on record this year, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), via the Southeast Regional Climate Center. And it will only get worse. If greenhouse gas emissions continue apace—something the passage of the recent Inflation Reduction Act is intended to stave off—the frequency of extreme heat conditions could double by 2065.
Extreme heat kills more than 18,750 Americans every year and is the deadliest weather-related event. “It’s not lightning, it’s not flooding, it’s not hurricanes and tornadoes, it’s heat,” said NOAA climatologist Barbara Mayes Boustead.
The death toll jumps when considering causes beyond heat stroke, like work casualties. Heat exposure is responsible for up to 2,000 worker fatalities annually.
Not only is extreme heat deadly, it’s expensive. It ignites wildfires, triggers droughts, precipitates floods, provokes power outages, whips up rain, shuts off the internet, inflames heart conditions, melts runways and eats up crops. In 2021, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center estimated that the economic loss from heat in the country would be at least $100 billion annually. This will double by 2030 and quintuple by 2050.
By that time, American bodies will learn to sweat and tan. American work will be reshaped around heatwaves and cooling breaks. And American life will be air-conditioned, shaded and slowed. But the body can only do so much, and the most vulnerable will be the worst off.
“Extreme heat conditions worsen disparities,” said Michele Barry, professor at the department of medicine in Stanford University. “While current U.S. climate policy is hindered by a focus on the costs of regulations on carbon emissions, it often fails to account for these massive societal and economic costs which will be felt by everyone—but which will impact vulnerable populations the most.”
But while politicians play clueless and officials manage cascading climate emergencies, Americans keep on about the business of life. Summer is a new season now, a season of heat stroke and dehydration. The heat has turned from friend to foe.
During one blazing week in late July, as the country sweltered under a historic heat wave, reporters from Inside Climate News fanned out from Massachusetts to California to learn how people were coping.
These are some of their stories.
A Sneak Peek Into a Cooler Past
Under the shade of a Boston Common tree, Israel Bissell proclaims to a crowd: “I would have to apologize to you quite gravely, I am presented to you naked! I do not have a coat over my sleeves.”
Dressed in a linen shirt, wool vest, wool pants, and wool hat, the revolutionary war hero—played by modern-day tour guide Aaron Samuels—is only naked by 1700s standards. In the 90-degree heat of this July morning, he’s wearing substantially more clothing than the tourists he’s leading, most of whom are in shorts and T-shirts, with water bottles in tow.
Samuels is giving a tour in the middle of a city-wide heat emergency that lasted an entire week, with temperatures in Boston reaching 100 degrees on July 24, setting an all-time record. He’s found ways to cope with the oppressive temperatures, the first being to ditch the wool overcoat. “I would rather be standing,” he tells the crowd, “Than wearing the coat, falling down, and passing out from heat stroke.”
Today, Samuels also carries a Ziploc bag full of salt that he takes throughout the tours, alternating with water from a period-specific water bottle. He says he also tries to make stops in the shade so the crowd doesn’t have to stand in the sun. “Having your arms covered up with the sun not beating [on them] helps you cool off, and you sweat and there’s a breeze so it’s not that bad,” he says.
Tim Donovan, who’s playing John Hancock today, decided to forego the wool overcoat, too. “I’m 60 and my wife was deathly afraid when I came out today,” he says.
While Boston is a heat island, the Common, with its shade trees, fountains and ponds, is a relatively cooler place to be. Still, the tour company, The Histrionic Academy, has made some schedule changes during the heatwave to protect tour guides and customers. David Samuels, Aaron’s father and the managing partner of the tour company, says that today they’ve moved some of the afternoon tours to the morning so that people can go home and cool off. Some tours in Salem, Massachusetts, were canceled due to the heat, as well. “We let the guides determine, based on their own health and safety concerns, what they’re going to wear,” he says. “I don’t want my guides passing out.”
The Bronx, New York City
The Ice Cream Paradox
Rocío Navarrete scrapes the bucket of cherry-mango flavored helado de agua, a type of Mexican ice cream. “It melted before,” she laughs apologetically while she tries to get a scoop of it into a cup.
Every day since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Navarrete, 38, has gone to the corner of Prospect and Longwood Avenues in the Bronx to sell jewelry, health products and ice cream. She loves going to the corner, just under the Prospect Avenue train station, because it gives her the opportunity to be outdoors and connect with people, even on a 95-degree day like today.
Every two minutes or so, she gets a new customer. “Would you like $1.50, $2.00 or $3.00?” she asks. But behind the pleasant transactions, there’s a bit of caution. In this heat, the ice cream in her pushcart melts faster, and she can end up losing a lot of her inventory.
When the mix becomes liquid, all the sugar goes down and ruins the product. “You throw that away,” she says. There’s no point in trying to sell what is now damaged goods.
Her best option is to call it a day to save the merchandise, despite the fact that it will hurt her sales. On those days, it would be much easier to stay home, but she can’t afford to. “Rent is expensive,” she says. “I have four children and it is difficult for me to cope. My husband works too, and we help each other out.”
And she’s not the only one in her family weathering the heat. Her children ages 16, 15, 9 and 5 come with her to work. They complain from time to time. They would rather stay in an apartment cooled by the air conditioner than be on the hot streets, but safety comes first.
Lately, Navarrete’s apartment building has become a hot spot for crime. “There have been people who break in to steal or something, and gang members have come to the apartment,” she says.
The whole family knows that heat can affect their health. Even though Navarrete hasn’t felt sick in the almost three years she’s been selling in this corner, she’s no stranger to the effects of heat stroke.
Before the pandemic she used to work cleaning a school in the afternoons. “When the children left, the person in charge turned off the air,” she remembers. Even if she needed it, she couldn’t take breaks because the cleaning needed to be done by 11 p.m. “There were times when I felt really bad.”
So, from time to time she gives away some of her raspado to dehydrated children and old people who can’t afford it. She says her job motivates her. “Many people come and some have been very kind, you know?” she says while serving a scoop of rainbow ice to a little one, while the elevated train clanks overhead. “Most of them here know me.”
Newark, New Jersey
Staying Cool Together
On a July morning Kevin Porter is welcoming small children and high school students to Rabbit Hole Farm. This community garden and urban farm in Newark, New Jersey, will be running summer programs for the kids. Porter, the farm’s founder, is multitasking, greeting the children while watering the plants that form the winding trails and shaded seating areas.
It is a scorching day in Newark—one of the top five most intense heat islands in the U.S.— with the temperature already climbing over 80 degrees by 9 a.m. The high for that day would reach 93 degrees, with a real feel of 108. Walking into the farm, the shade of the trees is an immediate relief.
Porter and his wife founded the farm in 2013, after acquiring the land through Newark’s “Adopt-A-Lot” program. They aimed to provide a “spiritual sanctuary” to the community and to educate them on the benefits of nature.
“Rabbit Hole has a special place in this community,” said Zoe Cronin, a youth program volunteer for local non-profit Newark Science and Sustainability. Cronin said the summer programs allow children to enjoy being outside without having to deal with the heat of the pavement, and provide a place of refuge for those who do not have air conditioning at home.
This summer, De’jah Monai, an artist and entrepreneur, is running “The Nature of Fashion,” a four-week sustainable design program for high school students. Monai mentioned that the farm offered the space free of charge, meaning that the high schoolers got to attend this summer program for free too.
Every aspect of Rabbit Hole Farm is a reminder of the importance of community, from its free events to its irrigation system that relies on the help of a neighbor. Local organizations such as Rabbit Hole are vital for providing Newark residents with respite from the persistent summer heat.
One Expensive T-Shirt
Shanterrie Martin woke up in the back of an ambulance headed to Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. Somehow three hours had passed since she was about one mile shy of the finish line of the first post-pandemic Peachtree Road Race.
Not all who fall victim to heat do so by circumstance. Some do it because they don’t think it will happen to them and that they know the warning signs of overheating.
Martin, an elementary school teacher in Tucker, Georgia, was one of seven race-goers hospitalized due to heat-related illness, on top of 180 people treated on site. Despite living with a heat intolerance diagnosis for her entire life, she was surprised to learn that she nearly suffered a heat stroke from walking the same 10k that she had previously been able to run.
Martin began her day sporting a lime green UV protective layer, and made sure to drink water at every leg of her commute to the race, which was delayed early in the morning due to two medical emergencies.
Martin had decided to walk the race instead of running it, after a “very, very rough” school year that had left her little time to prepare. With each mile came a detail that made this Peachtree Road Race different from previous ones. In the past there had been water stations and misting stations to help racers stay cool. This year there were open fire hydrants to help with the heat. And at 9:19 a.m. the Atlanta Track Club declared a code red heat advisory urging race-goers to take extreme caution and adjust their plans accordingly.
During this alert, Shanterrie was reaching the five-mile marker, “and that’s when I felt like Peachtree Road came up to meet my face.” She sought help and was quickly surrounded by four paramedics, a police officer, a firefighter and a firefighter in training, all of whom were frantically trying to cool her off.
“You’re burning up!” they said, but Martin couldn’t feel it. “I’m not hot!” she exclaimed—later learning that this ambivalence was a sign of heat illness and dehydration. They showered her with buckets of ice water for roughly five minutes. “It was as if they were trying to baptize me,” she said.
Despite their efforts, she lost consciousness. “I could not speak, my hands were balled up…I couldn’t open them. My face felt like it was in a vice grip.” Three fluid access lines, two EKGs and one sedative later Martin was finally revived. She isn’t sure if she will participate in the race again next year as the grasp that heat has on her daily life only worsens. “And I know a lot of that has to do with our climate,” she said, “and people who are in power not doing anything about it.”
Besides the health scare, Martin got one other thing out of the race: a commemorative T-shirt.
“That was one expensive T-shirt,” she said.
Hydration, Hydration, Hydration
Mark Westly, 58, drinks a glass of water after waking up. On a day like this, when the temperature will get to 112 degrees, his number one priority is to help his body get the hydration it hasn’t been able to produce on its own since he was a child.
At age 9, he survived a fire that left 51 percent of his body with third-degree burns. Aside from spending his childhood and teenage years under a regimen of constant doctor’s appointments to get skin grafts and reconstructive surgery, he never thought of his life as different from everyone else’s. He just has to be extra mindful of his body in hot climates because the burned parts of his body no longer have sweat glands.
“Only half of my body has the capability in hot weather or in extreme conditions to cool my body,” he says.
A resident of Washington State, Westly usually takes a few days at the beginning of the summer—before the peak of the heat—to do some maintenance on a house he owns in Arizona.
After taking a shower, he makes sure to apply oils and lotions so the heat doesn’t dry out his skin. Food and clothes play a big role in his routine. Greasy food can be harder to digest and takes away moisture from the rest of his body, so he opts for a liquid diet that includes lots of water and no alcohol. “There’s water bottles in the van, there’s water bottles in the living room, the bedroom.”
On a day like this, he removes his T-shirt and socks inside the house, and tries to dress with garments made from wicking materials. “The shirt that I have on right now is the spandex nylon dry fit. It just breathes better. It helps me stay cool.”
Westly feels lucky. He never stopped living an active life. For more than 25 years he’s coached middle school and high school sports, including football, basketball and baseball. He sees the extra steps he needs to take as another part of his well-established self-care routine.
He also recognizes that he enjoys luxuries that other people in a similar situation don’t, like having a pool in his house that he can use to cool down. “I prefer hot weather,” he says. “It’s easier, at least in my experience or from my perspective, to do things to cool down.”
The Upper West Side, New York City
Icy Camel Humps
The cyclist unzips her skin-tight jersey, trying to cool off. The main peloton had sped off ahead. She grits her teeth and pumps her legs on the small climb, while sweat drips down her chin. It was lap six—there were still nearly 10 to go. As she rounds the corner near the top of the climb, she gasps, “Oh, I’m done.”
Long after this sweaty cyclist was lapped by the field and long after the race finished, the event announcer spoke to the first and second place riders. “It was really hot,” said Kimberly Stoveld, 34, the runner-up. She had worked hard most of the race out in front of the pack. But when asked whether her strategy was affected by the heat, she replied, “No, I don’t care.”
The Grant’s Tomb Criterium cycling race took place on Saturday, July 23 in Riverside Park in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, despite a heat advisory from the National Weather Service and the longest heat wave in the city since 2013. Event organizers warned riders to watch for signs of heat exhaustion and officials had cold compresses on hand. Just in case, an ambulance was on standby near the course.
The Upper West Side lies in one of the cooler parts of the city, according to temperature maps from the New York City Council. Riverside Park and Morningside Park sandwich the race course, offering tree cover and a potential cooling effect from vegetation.
Cyclists and spectators gathered in patches of shade under the tall trees that line General Grant National Memorial at West 122nd Street and Riverside Drive. Much of the mile-long race course was without shade and the sun beat directly on the asphalt. However, reports from riders were mixed about the heat conditions. Many said it was “not bad,” even as they dripped sweat after finishing 40- to 60-minute long races around the closed loop.
David Sutherland preempted the heat by filling a pair of pantyhose with ice and stuffing it down the back of his shirt. The ice sock should be “about the size of a small baby,” said one cyclist from the Green Line Velo racing team. These icy camel humps melted after about 10 minutes of racing and provided extra relief as the water evaporated.
One race volunteer wore his orange safety vest over cycling bib shorts. He had raced earlier in the day for team Linea Racing, but now monitored the barricade to prevent scooters and pedestrians from entering the course. His assigned position was in direct sun the entire day, even as other spots on the course gained shade as the sun went down. For him, the heat wasn’t too bad. He pointed out that sometimes a breeze blew from the nearby Hudson River. “I did a race this year in Tulsa,” he said. “That was rough.”
Every Season Is Fire Season
The wildfire started with a Monday car wreck.
The flames grew to cover over 400 acres at their height, but a few days later, this wildfire west of a small Gold Rush town called Mariposa was largely burned out. Now, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is cleaning up.
Fire Captain Josh Anderson started his 24-hour mop-up shift at 7 a.m. He and his crew will fan across the scorched hills today to root out and extinguish still-burning embers. It’s before 11 a.m., and already about 90 degrees. Not the hottest working conditions, he says, but “it’s definitely heating up a lot more than it usually does for being 10, 10:30 in the morning.” Anderson stands with a few colleagues on the side of a public road near the burn. The property opposite is covered in ash and charred trees.
“Gonna be cooler today than it was on initial attack,” says Keith Swope, a mustached operations manager matching Anderson in a yellow, fire-resistant shirt.
“You definitely don’t feel the heat when you first go to a fire,” says Anderson. But on days when the fire is tame and his adrenaline is gone, like this one, the crews rely on water and electrolytes. The agency buys Gatorade when it can afford it, and a generic version when it can’t.
Anderson has fought fire for 16 years. He says it’s always been hot. But wildland firefighters in the West are now coping with a season that doesn’t stop. Climate-warmed temperatures and drier vegetation in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed spending nearly $2 billion of the state’s budget to fight and prevent wildfires, mean fires are more likely to ignite all year long.
Just across Highway 140, in a parking lot at the Mariposa Yosemite airport, strips of yellow, deflated hose lie on the ground in neat lines. A group of three men walk the rows, each lugging a hose on his shoulder and spraying water towards the ground to rinse the bright fabric. Splashes ricochet off the pavement.
This after-fire ritual happens once the drama of initial response has dissipated. When hoses are no longer needed to battle live flames, crews pull them from the site. Personnel started laying hoses on the ground yesterday to clean off the soot and dirt that cover them on the fire line. They’ll dry in the sun before being rolled up and carted off to the next wildfire.
In a far corner of the lot, more firefighters are sorting hoses, picking out equipment that’s been too badly burned or damaged. The castoffs sit nearby in a pile of tangled rubber.
Across the tarmac, grounded helicopters are on duty for a nearby fire in Yosemite National Park. Soon, the firefighters here will scatter, headed home—or to their next assignment. Later today, another wildfire will spark less than 20 miles away. Named the Oak Fire, it would grow to 14,000 acres in just a few days, warranting evacuations and an emergency declaration from the governor.
It’s summer in California.
With reporting and writing from James Pothen in New York, Grace van Deelen in Boston, Myriam Vidal Valero in the Bronx and Phoenix, Rachel Rodriguez in Newark, New Jersey, Samantha Hurley in Atlanta, Hannah Loss on the Upper West Side and Emma Foehringer Merchant in Mariposa, California.