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October 23, 2014

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Why this heat wave’s so scary and what’s behind it

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

A tourist takes advantage of the misters at Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas on Saturday, June 29, 2013.

Vegas Heat: June 29, 2013

Passersby take advantage of the misters at the Candy Factory to cool off on the Strip Saturday, June 29, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Heat Wave Across Western U.S.

From left, Subrina Madrid, Sarah Hudak, Jennifer, Shackelford, all of North Las Vegas, sit in the shallow waters along Boulder Beach at Lake Mead, Saturday, June 29, 2013. The three planned to spend the day at the lake to escape the heat in Las Vegas, where Saturday's daytime high was expected to reach 117 degrees. Launch slideshow »

WASHINGTON — Excessive heat is the No. 1 weather killer in the United States and it's at its most dangerous when it doesn't cool down at night.

The current heat wave over California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico has temperatures hitting triple digits, with little relief at night. Hot weather is also baking the rest of the far West, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Utah and Montana.

Q: What's so disturbing about this current heat wave?

A: It's unrelenting stubbornness. There is no relief at night. Phoenix set a record for highest nighttime temperature: 91. Las Vegas has gone three days without getting below 90, according to readings at the airport.

"Nighttime heat is especially bad," said Eli Jacks, chief of fire and public weather services at the National Weather Service. "Not to get below 90 is crazy."

Q: What's so dangerous about that?

If you aren't in an air-conditioned place, "your body never has a chance to recover" at night, Jacks said. Normally the "feels-like" index — which factors in temperature and humidity — has to get to 80 degrees or below for your body to recover from the daytime heat, Jacks said.

The lack of nighttime cooling is more dangerous than the 117 degree all-time record in Las Vegas, experts said.

Q: How do heat waves compare to other weather killers?

A: In recent years, heat has been more deadly than other weather extremes in the United States.

On average, heat waves are killing about 117 people a year, according to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, those numbers are incomplete and only based on reports during periods of extreme heat. The much more comprehensive numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that on average 658 people die each year from too much heat.

Q: Who is most at risk?

A: The elderly and children. The elderly make up 36 percent of heat deaths in the past decade, according to the CDC. And of all the excessive heat deaths, 69 percent are men. Also on average, 37 children left in car seats die from heat each year, according to a study at San Francisco State University.

Q: What can you do to stay safe?

A: Drink lots of water; the dry heat in the Southwest evaporates sweat so quickly that people don't notice they are perspiring and get dehydrated more quickly, Jacks said. Stay in the shade and out of the heat between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Use sunblock of SPF 15 or higher. Wear light-colored clothing and light clothing. Reduce use of caffeine and alcohol, which tend to dehydrate, and slow down.

Q: So what's causing all this?

A: Part of it is normal summer heat spurts, said meteorologist Kenneth James of the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md. But there's another factor and that's the jet stream.

Normally the jet stream moves generally west-to-east, but when it slows and swings dramatically to the north or south, extreme weather can happen.

What's happening now is "a really big kink in the jet stream, about as big as you can see anytime, covering the whole western U.S.," said heat wave expert Ken Kunkel, a professor of atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University.

To the west of the kink, in Arizona and Nevada, there's a high pressure system just parked there with stagnant heat, Kunkel said. And to its east are cool — even record cool — temperatures in Texas, he said.

Q: When will it end?

A: The extreme heat should continue for about a week, but it won't set records, James said.

Q: Is this related to the deadly Arizona fire?

A: "There's most assuredly a link" between the heat wave and the fire, Jacks said. It gets hot with extremely dry air, and then a no-rain lightning strike ignites bone-dry fuel into a fire.

Q: Is this global warming?

A: No single event can be blamed solely on man-made global warming, scientists and meteorologists say. But this is the type of heat wave than scientists have long said will be more common as the world warms.

Some, but not all, scientists also theorize that the jet stream is having more of these crazy kinks lately because of a warming Arctic and melting sea ice.

Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said there's an element of randomness in the current weather. Yet with all-time heat records in the past few years being broken at three times the expected rate, he said, "there can be little doubt that climate change and global warming are playing a role."

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  1. Of course global warming comes up even though it is cooler this year than it was in 1998 and actual temperature readings over the last 16 years are lower than every climate model in the IPCC reports. The fact that climate researchers cannot explain the lack of warming in a time where we have added 25% more CO2 to the atmosphere than the rest of humanity's history combined is cause for concern for the religion- I mean theory of "global warming"- I mean "Climate Change."

    If the climate models cannot even explain actual temperature readings over time then they are wrong. If they are wrong, they are useless in predicting the future.

  2. Good post Greg... But we're flat earthers unless we listen to the scientists that "know" what's going to happen.... Sheesh...

  3. Should we be concerned about those who cannot make or execute safe decisions for themselves when it comes to managing the effects of weather? Yes. Should we make it look as if the heat is a new problem? Hardly. Sunday's high temperature (which Las Vegas matched) was set back in the 1940s. In other words, high temperatures in Las Vegas are hardly "news" (IE, what, exactly, is "new" about them?).

    Global warming trends? Sure. Take a look at the engraved chart along the rim trail at the Grand Canyon. But don't forget take note of the cooling trends on the same chart.

    "You cannot go against nature,
    Because when you do,
    Going against nature
    Is part of nature, too."

  4. Greg,
    Post the sources for your assertions.

  5. James Reza, I think there is some concern that needs to be shown for those who are in bad positions, such as the homeless, when heat waves come around. How to handle that is another discussion though.

  6. This post explains why Gregg is wrong:
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-c...
    "To say we're currently experiencing global cooling overlooks one simple physical reality - the land and atmosphere are only one small fraction of the Earth's climate (albeit the part we inhabit). Global warming is by definition global. The entire planet is accumulating heat due to an energy imbalance. The atmosphere is warming. Oceans are accumulating energy. Land absorbs energy and ice absorbs heat to melt. To get the full picture on global warming, you need to view the Earth's entire heat content.

    Church et al 2011 extends the analysis of Murphy 2009 which calculated the Earth's total heat content through to 2003. This new research combines measurements of ocean heat, land and atmosphere warming and ice melting to find that our climate system continued to accumulate heat through to 2008..." The article continues on with graphs.