SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) – After a deadly heatwave triggered by climate change that suffocated the Pacific Northwest in late June, historic heat threatens records again, especially in the Southwest region hit by the drought.
Over 30 million people are subject to heat warnings and warnings. The National Weather Service says the risk level of this heat wave is “very high” – dangerous not only for those with underlying health conditions, but for the general population, especially those who work. outside. The overnight stays, which in some places did not go down until the mid-1980s, brought little relief.
As temperatures soar by triple digits, the sun will drown out what little moisture there is in the soil, compounding the West’s unprecedented drought. Scientists say heat and drought are inextricably linked in a vicious feedback loop that climate change makes even more difficult to break: heat exacerbates drought which, in turn, amplifies heat.
“As we go through these very extreme heat waves, it only makes the drought worse, even though the drought is initially caused by the lack of rainfall,” said Julie Kalansky, climatologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. . “But, during the dry months of much of the West, these heat waves only continue this drying out through the summer and into the fall.”
More than 93% of the West is in drought this week, according to the US Drought Monitor, the largest area on record in this region. Almost 60 percent of the West is in the two most severe drought categories – extreme or exceptional.
Three of the completely drought-stricken states are also at the center of this weekend’s heatwave: California, Nevada and Utah.
Death Valley in southern California is expected to reach 130 degrees or more on Sunday and Monday, a stone’s throw from the hottest temperature on record on the planet: 134 degrees at one location in 1913.
Kern County, about a three-hour drive west of Death Valley, is also expected to hit triple digits. Juan Flores grew up there in a family of migrant farm workers. He worked in the vineyards in stifling conditions during the summer holidays and remembers a previous extreme drought in 2011, when many migrant farm workers – including his parents – struggled economically.
“With the drought you’re going to have less crops and, because you’re going to have fewer crops, you’re going to need fewer people,” Flores said, “and then all of a sudden people are going to be over there. unemployment, but these benefits do not last forever.
Although her parents are in a better economic situation, Flores said many migrant farm workers will still suffer the brunt of the economic challenges from climate change as severe weather events become more frequent and more extreme.
“We need to speak out about a national emergency, especially in Kern County, because we are seen as the nation’s fruit basket,” said Flores, who is now a community organizer at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. , a national environmental justice group.
Kalansky said the strong storms that pull moisture from the Pacific Ocean, often referred to as atmospheric rivers, are crucial in determining whether California will end up in drought. In the past two years, however, only one of these storms has brought precipitation to California this winter.
During prolonged hot spells, like what the West has endured this summer, dry air evaporates water from the soil, exacerbating drought – another reason water shortages occur; not only was there not enough rain to fill the tanks, but the air is draining from what is left.
The heat and water shortages are hitting farming communities from several angles.
“When you have high heat in these farming communities, it can also be very dangerous and difficult to work outside,” Kalansky said. “So it’s kind of a double whammy.”
The agricultural labor market in the United States is heavily dependent on immigrants with very few legal protections. An analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, from 2015 to 2016, only 24% of U.S. farm workers were U.S. citizens. Many have risked their lives crossing the border to escape climate-related challenges.
Extreme heat and drought exacerbate the health risks that farm workers routinely face in the fields, including exposure to pesticides and respiratory diseases like asthma. In the relentless Pacific Northwest heat wave in late June, a farm worker in St. Paul, Oregon died while working for a crew as he moved irrigation pipes .
Adding insult to injury, Kalansky also warns that extreme heat, low humidity and historic drought is the recipe for another destructive wildfire season.
“It sets up the environment where if there is an ignition it’s really dangerous in terms of fire because the fields are so dry,” she said. “And then if you add winds to it, that’s when you really get these very dangerous forest fire conditions.”
As temperatures continue to rise, Kalansky said these extreme weather events are just a glimpse of what will happen if the world continues to spew out global warming emissions.
“I would think about how to mitigate the impacts now, equitably, especially for the most affected communities,” she said. “This is something very important to think about now and will serve well, as it is likely to happen again in the not too distant future.”
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