By Padma Balaji
Throughout this summer, the world has seen its fair share of extreme weather. Rainstorms have caused excessive flooding everywhere from Vegas to Kansas to St Louis. Wildfires have ripped through Northern California, devastating wildlife and putting people at risk. Heat waves have been sweeping through the US and the rest of the world, from Europe to Texas, and most recently: Philadelphia.
Starting Tuesday, July 19th, Philadelphia, along with much of the Northeast, faced a heat wave that ended the following Tuesday, July 26th. Lasting for 8 days, it was Philadelphia’s third heatwave this summer, and by far the most intense and unwavering. It set off at least two records as Philadelphia experienced some of the hottest days in over a decade. The heat wave reached a record high of 99 degrees, the hottest temperature on record since 2011. Additionally, it caused at least five heat-related deaths, and the city declared a heat emergency throughout the week.
In the months before the heat wave, Philadelphia had a mere 0.13 inches of rainfall, an especially low number that is thought to have been a major factor for the heat. But behind the low rainfall lies an even deadlier suspect: climate change. The extreme weather worldwide, from heat waves to floods, has almost doubled in the past 20 years, a statistic that is only suspected to increase as climate change continues to run its course.
Heat waves themselves are caused due to intense air pressure, a result of air sinking through the atmosphere. The pressure increases as air sinks, heating the air in the process.
This process is caused by a Rossby wave, a jet stream wind that zigzags back and forth between the poles. Rossby waves typically bring warm air to the poles and cold air to the tropics. However, when a Rossby wave stalls and stops zigzagging, it can cause intense weather, such as the recent heat waves in Europe and North America, as well as in Philadelphia. The heat waves that Rossby waves cause are even more intense when the ground is already dry and has faced little rainfall in recent times. And as climate change progresses and the Earth continues to warm, these wave stalls will continue to become more and more frequent, leading to more extreme weather.
In addition, heat waves are commonly accompanied by an increase in rainfall closer to the equator. For example, just as Philadelphia, accompanied by the rest of the Northeast region, began to heat up, much of the Midwest, such as Kansas and Las Vegas, faced heavy rainstorms and flooding. Not only do these rain events regularly accompany heatwaves, they also prolong them.
Philadelphia isn’t built for heat waves. From its infrastructure to the mitigation, the impact of heat waves on Philadelphia is only going to get worse.
For one thing, the Northeast is a humid region, which makes the weather feel far hotter than it is, especially in a heat wave. Additionally, urban areas like Philadelphia are susceptible to the “urban heat island” effect, which raises the temperature by several degrees in urban areas compared to more rural areas. This is because buildings, pavement, and other infrastructure absorb and retain heat, making it warmer.
This increase in temperature is terrible for many of Philadelphia’s 400,000 households that don’t have access to functioning air conditioning. Many of these households are lower-income ones, that can’t afford air conditioning. As well, lower-income neighborhoods, especially those with a high Black and Latino are more susceptible to facing higher temperatures, as the lack of greenery and trees found in many low-income neighborhoods can be up to 22 degrees hotter than higher-income neighborhoods with greenery.
Elderly people are also susceptible to higher temperatures, as nursing and elderly homes often don’t have proper air conditioning. In addition, people with preexisting conditions are especially susceptible to heat stroke.
Aside from that, extreme, prolonged heat has many long-term consequences. It can cause an increase in aggression and violence, and can even make chronic illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes worse.
Heat waves also have an impact on crops grown in the area. Intensive heat causes irregular pollination and deformed crops. And as heat waves continue getting longer and more frequent, they could have major impacts on crops in the Northeast region, leading to higher prices for produce.
When facing an issue such as climate change, the threat is so large and looming that we, as individuals, often feel helpless when combated with it. And while it is true that climate change will have large and major repercussions on the world, from rising seas to more heat waves and other extreme weather, that does not mean we are powerless to stop it.
For one thing, the effects of heat waves are already far less severe than several decades ago. When a Philadelphia heat wave in 1993 was responsible for over 100 deaths, the city launched several defensive measures to protect citizens and mitigate the impact of heat waves. In 1995, they set up the Hot Weather-Health Watch/Warning System, which saves 2.6 people per day when issued. As well, Philadelphia has been implementing several community measures to keep people cool, such as cooling buses, longer library hours, and waterparks.
There are also several organizations looking to alleviate the heat for those who need it the most, like one that is providing low-income households with air conditioning.
However, Philadelphia and other cities across the world will continue to grapple with the effects of heat waves and other extreme weather unless we address the root of the problem: climate change. Here are some ways you can help fight climate change:
- The Philadelphia Office of Sustainability has a guide on climate change action
- These are 5 ways you can help fight climate change in Philly.
- And if you want to go the extra mile, here is an in-depth report on ways Philadelphians can lower their carbon footprint.
- Here are some bills on climate change on greenhouse gases to call and email your representatives and senators about supporting.
- Finally, Sierra Club is an environmental organization with a base in Philadelphia. They are focused on “help[ing] [Pennsylvanians] explore, enjoy, and protect our state’s many environmental resources and fight[ing] for safe and livable communities.”