Extreme heat struck across the Southwest U.S. this week, sending temperatures in Phoenix soaring to near 120°F and grounding airplanes that were unable to operate in such warm weather.
Heat waves are nothing new, but they have increased in frequency and severity in recent decades as a result of climate change. And each extreme heat event reveals another way our society simply isn’t built for such high temperatures, from our transport systems to the agriculture industry.
“We’ve built entire infrastructures with particular temperatures in mind,” says Matthew T. Huber, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University. “When temperatures get really high, we don’t have the material capacity to deal with that.”
Still, humans continue to relocate to warm places like the Southwest, drawn by the temperate climate. In the coming decades, many climate researchers expect that pattern to reverse, as those once-desirable locations become too hot, flooded or otherwise uninhabitable. In some locations, particularly in the West, people will soon need to decide whether to rebuild for the new reality — or relocate elsewhere.
“There seems to have been a tendency for people to move to warmer locations with warm pleasant conditions,” says Jeremy Pal, a professor of civil engineering and environmental science at Loyola Marymount University. “If heatwaves become more frequent and/or severe or temperatures and humidity conditions become too extreme for an extended part of the year, I would expect populations to move to locations with less severe conditions.”
Here are four big ways we’re affected by extreme heat:
Humans have constructed essentially every element of the modern transportation sector to operate under certain temperature conditions. Airplanes — like those in Phoenix — cannot safely take off under extreme heat conditions that affect how the engine operates. Amtrak monitors temperatures closely and reduces the speed of trains when it gets too hot. Roads and highways can buckle as concrete expands.
These problems are not necessarily unsolvable. Take the issue of airplanes, for instance. Aviation companies can build planes to withstand higher temperatures, and airports can extend runways to address engine issues. But all those changes would be costly and require a wholesale rethinking of many aspects of the industry.