Andrea Thompson: Battling Extreme Heat Fatigue

While you’re shoveling snow out of the driveway this week, you may not want to hear about extreme heat – but then again, maybe you do! This week on Sea Change Radio, we discuss the issue of a warming planet with Andrea Thompson, a science reporter and associate editor at Scientific American. We look at how people and policymakers are trying to cope with the rising temps, examine how different parts of the globe are being affected, and talk about the challenges of presenting this important information to the public in a fresh, engaging manner.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise. 

Andrea Thompson (AT) | 00:19 – How much we decide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by and how quickly we do it is going to greatly affect what kind of summers we have 20, 30 years from now. You know, like what summers my 3-year-old is going to see when he’s my age. And it’s something that we, we are very much in control on. We get to set the standard for what that’s going to be in the future. And the decisions we make now will affect that.

Narrator | 00:50 – While you’re shoveling snow out of the driveway this week, you may not want to hear about extreme heat – but then again, maybe you do! This week on Sea Change Radio, we discuss the issue of a warming planet with Andrea Thompson, a science reporter and associate editor at Scientific American. We look at how people and policymakers are trying to cope with the rising temps, examine how different parts of the globe are being affected, and talk about the challenges of presenting this important information to the public in a fresh, engaging manner.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:35 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Andrea Thompson. She is an associate editor at Scientific American. Andrea, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Andrea Thompson (AT) | 01:52 – Thanks for having me.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:54 – So, looking at the work you’ve done the last few years at Scientific American, it seems like there’s a lot of focus on something that we all are very concerned about, which is extreme heat. Why don’t we dive into some of these stories, unpack them for our listeners, and, and give them a better idea of where we are and where we’re headed and what we can do about it?

Andrea Thompson (AT) | 02:20 – Absolutely. Yeah. So I think, you know, kind of the <laugh>, the high level headline was the 2023 was the hottest year on record and by a very large margin, um, it was about 1.15 degrees Celsius or about 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the previous hottest year of 2016. And, you know, that doesn’t sound like a lot, and it’s not, you know, maybe day to day, but when you’re talking on a global level averaging, you know, the whole world over a whole year, that is a really huge amount. It stands out very clearly in the records. And you know, these records, one of them is kept by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is, goes back 174 years. So that’s a pretty substantial time and based on what are, what’s called paleoclimate records, so using things like tree rings or cos taken from ice sheets or sediments, um, that can give us some glimpse of what the temperature was like before we have actual written records. There’s a good chance this is, you know, the hottest it the earth has been since humans have really been around so a couple hundred thousand years, which is really remarkable.

Alex Wise (AW)  | 03:39 – And we, here we are in the midst of winter and there’s headlines. I’m sure we can sniff them out of record cold temperatures in Norway or Alaska or wherever, but that does not necessarily correlate to the planet not warming. So why don’t you, if you can pop some of those myths for our listeners who, who may have gotten some disinformation about how if it’s cold outside the planet’s not actually warming. 

Andrea Thompson (AT) | 04:12 – Absolutely. So the existence of climate change doesn’t mean that winter doesn’t happen anymore. Um, it does sort of change the complexion of winter, um, depending on where you are. So, you know, winter is partly happens because of earth orbit and tilt. Um, and that’s not changing with climate change, but we are seeing that winter is the fastest warming season of all the seasons. Um, so when you look out over many, many years and over whole the whole season, it is, there’s a very, very clear warming signal. Um, and the way that that, you know, plays out week to week season to winter to winter, year to year, um, can be different. You know, you can still have a cold winter or cold snaps during the winter with, with climate change. Um, and there are even some with, in terms of snow, that’s actually kind of a weird complex thing. Um, for example, in the Great Lakes, they, if you’re in a place that sees lake effect snow, you could potentially see more of it for a while because warming means that those lakes don’t really ice over as fast. Um, and so when you do have cold winds coming down from Canada, you have the open water and then you get the lake effect snow. So they can actually see more lake effect snow and later into the season than they typically did in the past, which can seem a little counterintuitive, but… 

AW | 05:38 – So that’s, that precipitation is then a function of the warming. 

AT | 05:42 – Yeah, exactly. 

AW | 05:44 – So you get a lot of snow that, and, and there’s a blizzard that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s colder outside, it’s just we feel it more in our face because it’s snow. 

AT | 05:55 – Yeah, exactly. And you know, places that got snow in the past will still get snow to some extent in the future depending on where they are. Um, and depending on how much we warm. But we are seeing also the, across the northern hemisphere that snow cover has been going down, um, with forming, which is about what you’d expect. You know, anytime you look on a more local level, the data always gets a lot noisier. It’s much easier to look over a broad scale. But we also do see that, you know, winter’s overall warmer and you know, we are more likely to have these weird sort of warm spells like just happen across the, the middle of the country. Chicago and places in Iowa got right around 80 degrees in February, which is pretty wild. And we actually, I’m in Brooklyn and yesterday was, I think we got up to somewhere in the 60, right around 60, which is pretty unusually high for us for February. You know, it’s not something that was impossible in the past, but is much more likely with warming because you’re are have a baseline of those higher temperatures. 

AW | 07:04 – And you mentioned how the Earth’s tilt its axis affects the difference in temperatures between the northern and southern hemisphere. Obviously it’s the summer, late summer in southern hemisphere. Have we seen some anomalous weather patterns that are troubling in let’s say Australia? 

AT | 07:23 – Yeah, so they’ve definitely had some heat in Australia. They’ve had drought, they’ve had wildfires. They’ve actually had that in parts of South America too. Um, wildfires have actually been, um, particularly notable in a couple places. Columbia has seen, I think it was about 500 fires in January or more than, um, which is far more than they would typically see in that month. And part of that, uh, you know, is linked to warmer weather and drier weather. And there have been some what are called attribution studies, so where they kind of specifically look for the fingerprints of climate change and particular events, um, and have found that climate change is may playing a role in the drought that’s sort of in the, the Amazon basin and sort of the wider area around that. Um, and there have also been some wildfires down in Chile that were actually deadly. Um, and there’s big concerns over wildfires in the Amazon because it’s one of the worst droughts ever recorded there. Um, and it’s possible that El Nino, which is happening right now, is also playing some role there. It’s, especially its effects are especially strong in South America because it is a phenomenon that happens in the, um, in the eastern tropical Pacific. So that’s right off the west coast of South America. But you know, it’s clear that climate change is the bulk of what’s causing what we’re seeing globally and, and there.

(Music Break) | 09:08

AW | 09:44 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Andrea Thompson, she’s an associate editor at Scientific American. So Andrea, we were talking about the southern hemisphere. Let’s turn to the northern one that has the most landmass, that has the most people, and as a result we get a lot more news during our summer about extreme heat. This last summer you wrote about how half the world’s population faced extreme heat for at least 30 days in 2023 in, in the summer. This is not going to change. How are people starting to adapt and how are policy makers trying to help their populace survive and thrive in the midst of this new reality?

AT | 10:31 – Yeah, that’s an interesting question and one that varies a lot from place to place. There is a growing movement, I don’t know if you would call it a movement, but more places are hiring what are called sort of heat health officers, or you maybe you call them “heat czars.”

AW | 10:48 The opposite of the Heat Miser, sorry, could not help myself.

AT | 10:50  <laugh>, yes. <laugh> But someone who is sort of coordinating and thinking about that very question. And I’m trying to remember,  exactly some places in the US I think Miami has one and maybe Phoenix. Some countries in Europe have employed this strategy too. Um, and then putting in place, um, public policies like in New York we have cooling centers. So on days where the heat is going to be in exceptionally high for us, and you know, what is exceptional for us is not going to be the same as for Phoenix. You know, people are, they’re adapted to a higher level of heat than in New York and are more likely to have air conditioning <laugh>. Um, but there are, you know, libraries or other places that are open to the public on particularly hot days so that people can cool down. And so kind of expanding things like that looking at equitable access to air conditioning is, is another one. People, um, who are poor are less likely to be able to afford air conditioning. And that can also particularly become important at night. We tend to talk most about, you know, the, oh, here’s the high that was, you know, a high of 120 or whatever that was hit today in Phoenix. And those are important, but possibly more important or the overnight lows. And if those are particularly high, it’s lot harder for human bodies to have their kind of recovery time they need. So if you have overnight lows that only get in, you know, to around 80, that’s exceptionally hot for night. Um, and it makes it so much harder to recover. And I think that’s something that’s really underappreciated, um, because there’s always so much emphasis on, you know, on the daytime highs, right? 

AW | 12:51 – We always hear about these record highs and we’re almost greedy for these numbers. Like it hit 136 in Abu Dhabi, but like try sleeping in Abu Dhabi that night when it was 110. That’s not so simple either, especially if your air conditioning is either on the fritz or non-existent. 

AT | 13:11 – Yeah, exactly. And so I think that’s something that, you know, people are trying to get the message about more. And, you know, what can people do? Like if you don’t have air conditioning, what are some strategies? And a lot of that is staying hydrated, finding shade, you know, looking for places like cooling centers, being aware of what some of the symptoms of heat illness and heat stress are. Um, and that’s particularly important when you’re talking about people who spend a lot of time outdoors, especially, uh, construction workers or people who work in agriculture where you’re really in the sun a lot and you’re doing very, um, intensive work. And there is, you know, a growing movement among, in some of the worker spaces, so unions or other organizations of labor, um, to put more worker protections in place because there currently aren’t really rigorous OSHA standards. So they have been working on getting more rigorous standards in place at the federal level for a long time and it just isn’t coming out. A few cities, I can’t remember which, but a couple in Texas and Miami have been looking at setting their own, um, standards. Oh, I think it’s Miami-Dade County, not Miami, the city, um, to set their own ordinances for, you know, every so many hours workers should get a 10 minute water and shade break or something like that. Um, and state governments, um, particularly in those two states, Florida and Texas, um, have pushed back on that. They’re both republican led, um, states, both the legislature and the, um, and the, uh, governors and for business reasons have said, no, we don’t want that because you’ll have a patchwork of of requirements that’s going to be confusing for businesses to follow. Um, but it seems a bit perverse to tell people you can’t set safety requirements for people who have to deal with extreme heat. So that’s kind of playing out right now.

AW | 15:22 – Sorry to interrupt, but what are some of the arguments or that are put forth by these Republican legislatures that are prohibiting policy to try to give people relief from this extreme heat, essentially? 

AT | 15:35 – Yeah, so the main one is that, is that, well if Miami-Dade has this ordinance and you know, another county in Florida has another ordinance, and then Duval, which is where Jacksonville is, has another one, you know, that’s going to be really confusing for businesses who have to, you know, have different standards for different places. Most of it’s on economic. They say, uh, like in Florida, they say it’s going to cost the state economy too much and that it’s more important is more beneficial to workers to have a strong economy and lots of jobs than these protections. Healthcare advocates will point to that there are have been deaths, um, among workers in these sectors and that the current voluntary protections are insufficient, that there need to be more rigorous standards in place to make sure people get the relief they need. And this is only going to become more and more of a problem. 

AW | 16:34 – And as a science reporter, how do you continue to find fresh angles to report this annual rite of passage? You, you have an obligation to your readers to continue to make them aware of this. And, and I feel that way at Sea Change Radio as well. But maybe you can kind of give us a little insight into your process and how you try to report this issue with a fresh perspective, so people don’t tune it out. 

AT | 17:07 – Yeah, that is one of the key challenges of covering this area, and I think it’s something that every climate reporter contends with. So some of it is,in the case of 2023, setting the record and sort of within that we had July was the hottest month ever recorded. September set a monthly record by the most that’s ever been recorded. So sometimes I use those, um, records to sort of help explain aspects of the climate system or put into perspective if we also at Scientific American have a really great graphics team that is helpful in terms of, uh, conveying sometimes the information in that graphical form, which can really help sort of present it in a way that I think can be more immediately impactful because you can just look at the picture and get it. But I do also, I do a lot of, um, you know, talking to climate scientists, watching what they say, you know, and talk about on social media, looking at studies, um, and just sort of saying like, oh, they made a point that I haven’t really thought about or that was, you know, I think really helpful. And probably the best example of that, um, was somewhere before last when Gina Raimondo Secretary of Commerce, um, made a comment in regards to some of the heat from that summer, which was also pretty notable, um, that, you know, this summer is very hot, but it’s effectively going to be the coolest of the rest of our lives. And that really struck me as such a, a good way to sort of take a thing that was happening now and put it in the longer term context because everyone that summer was talking about, oh my God, it’s been so hot, this is awful. It’s awful. And it’s, you know, it’s important. It’s not every summer is going to be hotter than the last because you still have year to year variability. And that’s one thing that I think often confuses, um, makes it confusing to talk about climate change. But a summer like this last year or, or the summer before that 20 or 30 years from now is going to be an average summer. It’s not going to be something that’s going to be exceptional like it is now. And sort of helping people understand that what we’re living right now is very much even when it’s extreme, and then kind of an outlier is a glimpse of what we’re going to see more in the future. But also making the point that to what degree that is the case is very much within our control. How much we decide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by and how quickly we do it is going to greatly affect what kind of summers we have 20, 30 years from now. You know, like what summers my, my 3-year-old is going to see when he’s my age <laugh>. And it’s something that we, we are very much in control on. We get to set the standard for what that’s going to be in the future. And the decisions we make now will affect that.

(Music Break) | 20:17

AW | 21:10 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Andrea Thompson, she’s an associate editor at Scientific American. So Andrea, we’re talking about how you cover extreme heat issues, also you’re a storyteller. Maybe give us a glimpse into some of the stories that have touched you, people who’ve been affected by the changing climate. 

AT | 21:32 – Yeah, so one of the really affecting stories I wrote was on an attribution study looking at drought in the horn of Africa. So that’s Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, that area. And it was specifically focused on drought, but heat is a major component of drought. So, you know, precipitation is one side, heat is another. You set the stage for drought often by having less rain than normal, but when you have height, heat, um, acting with that, it tends to dry out soils and crops and things, um, more than would be the case. And this looked at a particular drought that’s been happening over a couple years in that Horn of Africa region. And it was combination of five seasons of, of failed rains in a particular season, you know, combined with heat. And they found that climate change played a really clear role in this and that was hugely impactful to the people in that area who often are subsistence farmers or keep livestock. People were forced to migrate to other regions in search of water or, you know, for pasture, for their livestock or just to find food. And I think that is, you know, helpful to keep in mind. It’s for, for many of us in the US obviously not for everyone, heat is perhaps more of a nuisance, um, than anything, but in some areas, and for some populations, you know, it, it’s a matter of survival. and, and sort of making that clear and realizing the effect that it has on so many people across the world, you know, millions. And that’s just one example and it has, the groups that are sort of already most vulnerable to a lot of things, young children, older people, people who are poor, who, you know, may not have money for things like air conditioning, people who have pre-existing health conditions like, um, maybe heart disease or, lung ailments like asthma, are more vulnerable to extreme heat than, you know, an average sort of healthy adults and that makes it really hard, um, you know, to when you have these already vulnerable groups being hit even more by these, these climate changes and heat isn’t the only climate change that can affect a lot of these populations more. But recognizing that, that for a lot of us where it’s just, “oh, this is uncomfortable,” it is really dangerous and deadly for a lot of people.

AW | 24:32 – And human nature tends to be able to compartmentalize and, and to read a story about somebody in Kenya or Yemen being affected by extreme heat and, and be sympathetic, but not truly empathetic, not being able to, to really relate to it, which is why I thought the wildfire smoke stories that we’ve been seeing over the last five to 10 years are our can, can really resonate with a major metropolis, uh, or, or, or urban populations on a mass scale. I mean, in San Francisco we had, you know, the sky was basically the, the sun was obscured by mass from smoke, from wildfires. And, and I know last summer New York got hit with, with Canadian wildfire smoke. And so it, it, it becomes, it becomes real for people and it’s not just a nuisance, it’s, it’s, we all are in this together. And I think when those kind of, they’re unfortunate episodes, but I think they, there’s a silver lining behind them in that it can wake people up. 

AT | 25:45 – Yeah. And I think that happens with a lot of, um, climate related extremes and disasters. Um, you know, when Katrina happened, I remember at the time, and I wasn’t yet a reporter, um, I had just finished <laugh> my, my degree studying meteorology and spheric chemistry. Um, but it caused a lot of people to ask like, oh, is this climate change? Is this climate change? And like, we couldn’t really answer that question in a robust Scientific way at the time. Um, but we can say a lot more, um, with a lot of events, extreme events that happen now, particularly with heat, um, and pretty much every heat extreme that’s been studied in that way, uh, it is very clear that climate change is, is playing a role in making it worse, making it happen more often and making heat last longer. Um, and a couple of the extremes, um, last year, uh, the one that, so the heat, uh, kind of endless heat in the southwest of the US and then, um, in parts of Europe, they found a, a study found that basically they would not have happened without climate change. 

AT | 26:55 – You know, if you took, um, those same weather patterns and stripped out the climate change signal, you wouldn’t have seen those extremes. Uh, that’s, you know, <laugh>, it’s about as clear cut as you can get. Um, you know, it’s a little trickier with other ones, with precipitation. There are a lot more things you have to look at more variables. Um, but we do often see very, um, you know, obvious signals that climate change is making extreme rainfall worse, making flooding more likely. Um, you know, there are clear signals and drought and many other things. So we can really tell people and pretty quickly that this extreme you’re experiencing is do in large part to climate change. Um, and I do think it does, um, help people sort of make it less abstract and make it less of a thing that, oh, that’s just happening in the future. So, no, it’s happening now. Um, and I think that’s really important to get across. 

AW | 27:53 – She’s an associate editor at Scientific American, Andrea Thompson. Andrea, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

AT | 28:01 – Yeah, thanks for having me. 

AW | 28:16 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the New Mastersounds, Mr. Sad Head and James Brown. To read a transcript of this show, go to to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.