The Increasing Heat of Summer Has Made It a Survival Test

To shield herself from the hot sun, Estela Martinez wears a light shirt and a thin jacket while she works in the fields. She survives by working as a farmhand in Florida’s sweltering heat. She brings plenty of water and shelters from the sun behind the plodding tractors.

But recently, as records for high temperatures continue to rise, she has complained that the heat has made her job more difficult. Florida has broken more than 50 temperature records since the beginning of June, and the heat and humidity have made it extremely risky for people to go outside.

“The heat has been very strong, and I’m sweating a lot more easily,” Martinez told CNN. “I have never felt heat this way after so many years working in the fields.” Martinez’s days consist of tough endurance training, broken up by breaks for drink and shade.

Summer has become a true test of endurance for many people who work outside, especially those in the agricultural and construction industries. People facing homelessness, communities of color, low-income families, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

According to National Weather Service records, heat-related deaths account for the greatest number of weather-related fatalities in the United States, and climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of heat waves. More than 30 days in a row, officials in Texas and Arizona have issued heat warnings, and this weekend, residents from the Rio Grande to the Pacific Northwest can expect record high temperatures.

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Extremely high temperatures, up to and perhaps beyond 120 degrees, are predicted for the Central Valley of California. And in Phoenix, this July has gotten off to the hottest possible start: the temperature has reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit or above every day so far, and it seems like it will stay that way well into next week.

This could be the longest streak of 110-degree weather in Phoenix’s recorded history. According to a health report from Maricopa County, more than 400 persons in the greater Phoenix area died from heat-related illnesses last summer, with the homeless making up the biggest percentage of those who perished.

Most of those people died in natural settings. As Phoenix continues to endure a potentially record-breaking heat wave, the city’s first chief heat officer, David Hondula, has said he is taking a fresh approach to keeping residents cool, healthy, and safe. This is especially true for persons facing homelessness.

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The city has renamed its cooling centers “respite centers” to make it clear that individuals are welcome to sleep, rest, and find refuge in these buildings during the hot weather.

“There’s a lot of messaging around checking on friends, family members, neighbors — but I don’t think we’ve seen the messaging enough in past years, and that activity really should happen multiple times per day,” Hondula told CNN. “Heat illnesses can come on very quickly.”

Union of Concerned Scientists climate expert Kristina Dahl has noted that people who labor outside, like Martinez, are at a considerably higher risk of being ill or dying due to excessive heat. “When it comes to protecting the health of outdoor workers during extreme heat events, there are really just three fundamental pieces — water, shade and rest,” Dahl told CNN.

Dahl expressed concern that many farmworkers are compensated based on output, so “taking breaks to stay safe in the heat can translate to lost earnings.” “We need to make sure we’re protecting their wages so they’re not choosing between a paycheck and their health,” Dahl added.

The Increasing Heat of Summer Has Made It a Survival Test (2)

That her pay is independent of her yields makes Martinez feel like “one of the lucky ones,” she added. “I have the opportunity to take a rest whenever I need them, but this is not the situation for every farmworker.” According to Pablo Ortiz, UCS’s senior water and climate scientist, most farmworkers come from low-income families.

The long, hot days of work leave them too exhausted to even consider turning on the air conditioning at home. As the nighttime heat rises, this poses an even greater risk to people’s health. “Something that’s also happening with climate change is that nighttime temperatures are also rising,” Ortiz told CNN.

“So, there are many days where the heat doesn’t cool off as much, and if there is no air conditioner, then they also don’t rest. Then they need to start early again.” Portland State University professor Vivek Shandas, an expert in climate change and urban policy, has found that racial background is a significant predictor of heat stress.

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Recent research has shown that communities with high concentrations of people of color (particularly Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians) are subjected to far higher temperatures than their more affluent and white counterparts. These findings corroborate what Shandas has discovered in his own investigation: that the racial discriminatory practice of redlining, which was common in the early 20th century, has left a lasting imprint.

Shandas argued that cities needed to do more to protect their most vulnerable residents by rapidly expanding their network of trees and green areas, which not only shield residents from the sun but also lower the city’s average temperature throughout the day.

He also suggested that they distribute air conditioners and other cooling equipment in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner. Green areas, swimming pools, and cooling centers are all important, but as Dahl noted, “we also need to be looking at ensuring access to cooling at home by preventing utilities from shutting off the electricity during heat waves even in cases where someone is behind on their bills.”

Shandas warned that action must be taken soon to address the problem of rising temperatures around the world. “It’s making me worry about where the world is heading,” he said. “We’re not adapting fast enough.” 

The California Examiner is the most reliable source of news on the state of California.

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