At least 18 people are dead and 2.2 million people remain without power in the eastern United States, three days after a "super derecho" storm and near hurricane-force winds brought down electricity infrastructure throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
Following on the heels of the winds that felled trees and crushed cars and homes in Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas, a punishing heat wave is wilting crops from Kansas to North Carolina, charting a path of record temperatures as it goes.
The relentless temperatures have even surprised climatologists, who said yesterday that while no single weather anomaly can be directly attributed to global warming, this decade's extreme weather events have exceeded expectations. Meteorologists, meanwhile, said the heat and the storm go hand in hand.
"Weather patterns shift, so you can be reasonably sure that on any given summer, somewhere or other it's going to be the hottest it's ever been," said Dave Samuhel, senior meteorologist with the Web-based weather forecaster AccuWeather. "But I'd say with this many cities setting records all at once -- that's unusual."
He noted that storms generally concentrate at the periphery of high-pressure systems, where warm air mixes with cool air, creating volatile winds.
"In nonscientific terms, the atmosphere doesn't want to be at 104 degrees [Fahrenheit] this early in the year," Samuhel said. "Heat is the fuel that these storms use to erupt," he said.
More than 1,000 heat records have been broken in the last week alone, he said, and temperatures in the upper 90s and lower 100s could persist into the foreseeable future. That is hard news for residents of storm-hit regions, many of whom remained without power throughout the day yesterday. Despite crews working around the clock, utilities say full power may not be restored until Friday.
All-time highs were recorded over the weekend in Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta, while Washington, D.C., exceeded its previous June record by a full 2 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching 104 degrees Friday.
Previous temperature records were tied in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., and Columbia, S.C.
Beating the heat, one day at a time
Around the Washington, D.C., area, residents did what they could yesterday to ride out the heat wave, sheltering with friends and family or taking advantage of local "cooling centers" for a few hours of relief. Linda Lesch, a resident of the Potomac Village neighborhood of Montgomery County, Md., said she and her husband have taken up temporary residence with a daughter in Washington until their power is restored.
"We're not expecting to go home until Friday," she said. "It'll take that long."
Lesch said she spent much of Monday searching for two things that, at the moment, remain in short supply: gas and ice. The heat, combined with the closure of many stores and gas stations, has led to a run by the public on both items, she said.
"You walk in the grocery stores, and there're no groceries to be had," she said. "I was finally able to fill up my car at the third gas station I visited, but before that, the others were just wiped out."
As for ice, after making more than 20 stops, she finally gave up. "I finally said, 'It's not gonna happen,'" she said.
For those who are less mobile, particularly the elderly or the disabled, the heat wave poses a serious risk to health, said Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.
"There's no magic number at which the temperature stops being safe and becomes dangerous," he said. "What you have is a continuous increase in risk." Usually, that risk starts going up at temperatures above 98 degrees, but a lot can depend on physiology, acclimatization and other health factors, he said.
For those still without power, Frumkin said it was critical to find areas to cool off at least for a few hours of the day.
"Stay hydrated," he advised. "If the temperature is above 98 degrees, don't rely on fans -- they're just blowing hot air at you, which can have the opposite effect from what you intend. Also, people who are in good functional shape should check on their neighbors, particularly if they're elderly or they live alone."
People should consult with their doctors about the medications they use, as many can be rendered ineffective by temperatures above 100 degrees, he added.
Troubling patterns in a decade of hotter temperatures
Although no single weather event can be directly attributed to global warming, temperature records over the past several decades indicate that the world is moving toward more extreme heat, rather than extreme cold, said Steven Running, director of the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at the University of Montana.
"What we see from the record is that we're breaking high temperature records twice as frequently as low temperature records," he said. "Without fingering any particular event, we can say that the probability distribution of temperature is being tilted towards warmer times."
Running noted that even climate scientists who predicted global warming in the late 1960s would be surprised at the heat extremes and weather patterns we are seeing today. More than 22,000 temperature record highs have been set this year, many of them during an unusually warm March. Warm winter conditions are responsible in part for the severity of the current wildfires in the Rocky Mountain West, blazes that have cost more than $100 million to fight and claimed half a dozen lives.
"Forty years ago, pre-eminent climate scientists of the last century didn't think the problem was developing at a speed we'd have to worry about in our lifetimes," Running said. "Most of the science community didn't think [climate change] would be urgent before midcentury."
"And yet here we are," he said.
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