As I write this column in mid-July, the high temperature today is expected to be a balmy 83 degrees, unusually mild for the summer in Hot’Lanta—an old nickname popularized by the Allman Brothers Band in lyrics written an unbelievable five decades ago. Except for a few steamy days, the temperatures have been fairly cool, thus far, with the mercury rising above 90 degrees only a few times and moderating rain storms occurring almost daily.
The weather has been nothing like the summer of 1980. A record high daily temperature of 105 sizzling degrees was recorded on three consecutive days in July of that year. I remember lying on my bed, motionless and surrounded by fans, trying to cool down in a room with a minimally-functional air conditioner. A friend recalls working outside that summer, renovating an apartment building, and having to stop work, when he became disoriented, agitated, and dizzy – the tell-tale signs that your brain is overheating. It was “only” 105, a number that seemed inconceivably high then, but now, less so, as our planet warms.
The Earth is heating up because we burn gasoline in our cars, burn coal for heat and electricity, and burn natural gas: a cleaner fossil fuel, but one that still contributes to global warming. For decades, scientists have projected longer, larger and more intense heat waves; however, the impacts of a hotter world are no longer in the future – they have arrived. The warmest June ever recorded in North America occurred this summer. Globally, we experienced the fourth hottest June ever, as 23 countries reported temperatures that equaled or exceeded 122 degrees; the first, second and third hottest all occurred in the past five years.
The western U.S. is being hammered with relentless heat this summer. Exceptionally high temperatures were registered at the end of June in the Pacific Northwest, where a “heat dome” of high-pressure air settled over the region. Portland, Seattle, and other cities experienced temperatures that were 30 to 40 degrees above average for the month. A small town in British Columbia suffered an intense 121 degrees over several days – the highest ever in Canada – and then literally burned to the ground.
More than 500 deaths have been linked to the Pacific Northwest heat wave, which also resulted in forest fires, glacial meltwater floods, power cuts, buckled roads, and the death of millions of sea creatures that were “cooked to death” on shorelines. A global group of climate scientists quickly analyzed this extreme event, concluding that the disaster would have been virtually impossible without the effects of human-caused climate change. The chances of the region reaching such extreme temperatures had increased 150-fold since pre-industrial times.
Those of us fortunate enough to have air-conditioned homes and the ability to travel to cooler climates may think that we will not be affected a great deal by a hotter world. That is, until we understand the growing risk of overlapping heat waves and power failures: a deadly combination, especially in unprepared cities.
According to Dr. Brian Stone Jr., head of the Urban Climate Lab at Georgia Tech, power failures have doubled from 2015 to 2020 – as climate change has made heat waves worse. The causes? Increased demand placed on the electric power grid during the summer, more extreme storm events, and disinvestment in the grid.
What Atlanta Must Do
Using computer models and historical (not future) extreme weather events to study three large cities, including Atlanta, Stone and his colleagues concluded that a combined blackout and heat wave would expose at least two-thirds of the people in the cities to heat exhaustion and heat stroke; that would mean hundreds of thousands of people in the city of Atlanta alone. Not surprisingly, heat exposure is most likely for lowest-income households and the homeless.
We may have escaped excessive heat in Atlanta so far this summer, but a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reveals that the city’s monthly and yearly average high temperatures have been steadily rising. The potential for critical infrastructure failures during extreme weather events is also rising here – and everywhere. Not in the distant future, but now.
Has the city of Atlanta taken steps to prepare for the possibility of these concurrent events? Dr. Stone’s response is a resounding, no. He explains: “Atlanta’s orientation toward [climate] resilience is among the least developed of any major city in the U.S.”
During most of the administration of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, neither sustainability nor climate change has been a priority, according to local sustainability experts. Disturbingly, they say that “substantial cuts” were recently made in the budget for the city’s Office of Resilience. When the New York Times contacted the mayor’s office a few months ago for comments on a story about Dr. Stone’s findings, no one responded.
What can – really must – be done now to prepare Atlanta for concurrent heat waves and blackouts? Three things for a start: (1) a more extensive network of emergency cooling centers with mandated backup power generation, (2) a robust tree protection and planting program that actually works (unlike the current effort), and (3) a permanent temperature monitoring system in all neighborhoods to notify residents of heat risks in real time.
On November 2, 2021, a new mayor will be elected in Atlanta. All mayoral candidates and members of the city council must make a commitment to funding and strengthening the Office of Resilience, so that it has the ability and authority to take action now to help us adapt to our changing climate.
Find more information at urbanclimate.gatech.edu.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.