John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Take a barefooted walk across a Las Vegas parking lot, receive skin grafts and weeks in the hospital.
A nasty, spiteful, brain-boiling blob of high pressure continues to bedevil the American West, and forecasts indicate it ain't going nowhere until after Independence Day. As reported earlier on this site, the extreme heat is causing weird problems like planes that can't fly because of altered air density. But what's the human cost of this hellish weather?
• Let's begin this pageant of misery with a story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that's chock-full of terrible, highly readable details about the hidden dangers of... the ground. When temperatures soar, asphalt turns into sort of a surprise griddle that sears the heck out of human skin. Here's University Medical Center trauma and burn specialist Jay Coates telling the newspaper about the injuries he's seen so far:
“I just released a guy from the hospital a couple of weeks ago who tried to make it across a parking lot in his bare feet earlier this summer,” Coates said. “We had to do skin grafts on him and they’re not easy to take on the bottom of the feet. If people try that now, it can only be worse.”
Then there's this:
Coates recalled how UMC had to care for a homeless man who was found face down on the pavement in 2011.
“It was a 110-degree day and he was badly burned,” he said. “It cost us more than a million dollars to care for him. The Las Vegas heat can do real damage.”
Indeed, Arizona researchers addressed the distressing viciousness of hot asphalt in a 1995 paper, "Pavement temperature and burns: Streets of fire." They describe an eight-year period at the Maricopa Medical Center that saw 23 patients with pavement cauterizations so bad they required treatment at a burn center. Their conclusion:
Asphalt pavement was hot enough to cause burns from 9 AM to 7 PM during the summer months. It was hot enough to cause a second-degree burn within 35 seconds from 10 AM to 5 PM. The group of burned patients could be divided into three categories: incapacitated, restrained, and sensory deficient....
During summer days in the desert, pavement is often hot enough to cause burns and does so with regularity in the southwestern United States. No one should be allowed to remain in contact with hot pavement, even transiently.
For a totally gruesome video of what hot pavement can do to a runner's bare feet, you can watch this classic video – but be warned, it's hard to unsee.
• Given this information, it's easy to see how parents might want to be extra careful when out walking with their children, lest a kid stumble and become sizzling road meat. But the hazard of burning pavement extends to our pets, too, as an animal-shelter official tells the Napa Valley Register:
Loomer said the pads of dogs’ and cats’ feet can burn while walking on hot asphalt and concrete. She advised owners to do a simple test before taking their dog for a walk.
“Pet owners should be mindful and test out the surfaces by placing a hand down for 3 to 4 seconds,” she said. “If it’s too hot for your skin, it’s too hot for their pads.”
Another pet expert informs WETM-TV in New York that hot pavement can give dogs and cats "1st, 2nd, and even third degree burns."
• Dozens were hospitalized and at least one person died of the 115-degree heat over the weekend in Las Vegas (he had medical conditions and no A/C). With high pressure persisting in Nevada likely until Friday, the local office of the National Weather Service is warning of a potentially deadly situation ahead, especially in Las Vegas where it probably won't get cooler than 90 degrees at night:
A TOTAL OF 17 PEOPLE DIED FROM HEAT-RELATED CAUSES IN THE LAS VEGAS VALLEY FROM JULY 14TH TO 23RD IN 2005... WHEN TEMPERATURES WERE OBSERVED AT OR ABOVE 112 FROM THE 14TH TO 17TH. THE PEAK TEMPERATURE DURING THAT PERIOD WAS 117.
CHILDREN... THE ELDERLY... AND PEOPLE WITH CHRONIC AILMENTS ARE THE MOST SUSCEPTIBLE TO HEAT-RELATED ILLNESS. CRAMPS... HEAT EXHAUSTION... OR IN EXTREME CASES HEAT STROKE CAN RESULT FROM PROLONGED EXPOSURE TO THESE CONDITIONS. FRIENDS... RELATIVES AND NEIGHBORS SHOULD CHECK ON PEOPLE WHO MAY BE AT RISK.
• Six marathon runners in Pasadena jogged straight into the hospital on Sunday, figuratively, after succumbing to cramps and confusion and fainting spells. Said a fire-department spokesperson: "A lot of what they didn’t take into account is the radiant heat from the black asphalt. No matter how much you train, it’s hard to acclimate your body to these conditions."
• Drivers are facing suddenly dangerous roads as the incessant torridness causes pavement to buckle. This warping of infrastructure has occurred in Renton near Seattle, in Sacramento, and in Salt Lake City, where it messed up firefighters efforts to respond to a variety of heat-exacerbated wildfires.
• In San Jose, 8,000 people lost electricity on Tuesday due to the extreme heat thumping the power grid. That TKOed sweaty citizens' trying to take advantage of that other, more ratchet form of air conditioning: a "cool refrigerator to stand in front" of, as one miserable man told NBC News.
To recap for the weather nerds out there: In June, high-temperature records across the U.S. were broken 873 times and tied 423 times. New records are now on the books in North Pole, Alaska (near Fairbanks), where the mercury reached 80.1 degrees on June 1, 114.1 degrees in Zion National Park in Utah on June 29, and on June 30 in the aptly named California town of Baker, an incredible 120 degrees. That actually turned out to be cool compared to Palm Springs, about 100 miles south, where it was 122 that same day, besting a record of 120 degrees set in 1950.
Here's a map of all of June's hot-weather records, courtesy of NOAA:
Top image: A woman suffers through the recent awful, overheated weekend in Los Angeles (REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn)