A minor news item from the weekend.

On Sunday a passenger flight from Houston to Phoenix turned around midway and landed safely at Houston. There were no mechanical issues. All passengers and crew were healthy. No storms were encountered. What happened was that the pilots and their airline were aware of laws that forbid planes to land when the temperature exceeds 120 degrees. At that point certain instruments on older planes may lose precision and smaller planes are subject to additional danger from the waves of heat radiating up from the ground.

It's likely that the plane could have proceeded without incident and the turnaround could be described as an abundance of caution. But the incident highlights the fact that Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport recorded a record high of 117 F in the shade on Sunday, with ground temps on the black asphalt runway easily over 120. For the overseas folks, 117 F is 47 C. It is, in the scientific sense, balls hot. It's almost too hot to imagine. Having spent a fair amount of time in southern Arizona, I subscribe to the easy to mock "It's a dry heat!" theory. Compared to sweltering Midwestern and Southern humidity, I find that 100 F in the dry desert does not feel as hot – as long as you're in the shade. 110 F in the shade might be bearable, even if still hot. In the sun you'd be dead in a couple of hours.

The question the current Southwestern heat wave raises is one that is one it might be useful to start thinking about more: At what point is it just going to get too hot to live in some parts of the world? Calm down, I'm not talking about right now. In the long term – thirty or forty years down the road – the continuation of current warming trends could push it to the limit of what we can reasonably inhabit. Some serious research has suggested that at some point between 2050 and 2100, for example, parts of the Middle East and Africa may simply be too hot for humans to survive in. Granted it is arguable that humans can survive in any environment given all the advantages of technology, but with caveats. One is that infrastructure degrades at a certain point – roads buckle, rails bend, and transformers explode. Another is that if the ability to live in an environment depends entirely on limitless availability of water, electricity, and air conditioning in the middle of deserts, such an environment is "habitable" only in a limited sense. We assume those things, which far from guarantees that they will always be there. The combination of water scarcity and sheer heat eventually have to reach a breaking point. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but we can't hold back nature forever.

Long-time readers know my Crazy Old Man theory that the mass migration of population and economic resources to the Sun Belt is a temporary phenomenon. There simply is no long-term logic, for example, to having 10 million people live in the Phoenix-Tucson urban area with water sufficient to sustain maybe a quarter that many. Add in (slowly) rising temperatures, longer summers, and explosive population growth and it's clear that the current trends cannot continue indefinitely. The United States industrialized and populated itself from the Northeast and Midwest because, despite the crappy winters, they were actually survivable during the summer before the widespread availability of cheap power and they have ample water resources for transportation, agriculture, and urban use. We probably won't be alive to see the waves of migration reverse and move back in that direction, but it will happen eventually. The funny thing about unsustainable behavior is that it can't go on forever.

43 thoughts on “FEEL THE ACTUAL BURN”

  • According to this year's Mauna Loa observations, the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 is itself increasing — that is to say, the second derivative is positive, and the curve is concave toward the upper left.

  • If I remember the projections right, you won't have to go as far as the Middle East to find unlivable places. The Texas-Okie panhandles are likely to become unlivable (120F heat for weeks at a time, no water, etc, etc) in 50-100 years.

    Unless, of course, enough people have road to Damascus conversions, understand climate change for the existential threat that it is, and do enough about it right now, this very minute, so that fifty years from now it's not quite as bad as it could be.

    /*the place is haunted. I'm hearing hysterical laughter*/

  • Granted it is arguable that humans can survive in any environment given all the advantages of technology, but with caveats. One is that infrastructure degrades at a certain point – roads buckle, rails bend, and transformers explode. Another is that if the ability to live in an environment depends entirely on limitless availability of water, electricity, and air conditioning in the middle of deserts, such an environment is "habitable" only in a limited sense.

    If you really want to use technology to live in these conditions, above-ground structures with lots of windows are not the way to do it. If you live underground, the need for air conditioning is a lot less. For water, you could use some combination of recycling and desalination of seawater. Electricity is not necessarily a problem if you use solar power. Basically, you'd have to treat it as science-fiction colonization of the surface of a hostile planet, because that's what it would be. It's Frank Herbert's Dune, relocated to Arizona.

    Or you could move away to somewhere more habitable. No prizes for guessing what people will do.

  • About 15 years ago, Phoenix and Las Vegas were the trendy places to move (I almost said "hot" but I didn't want to make a bad pun). It seemed like everybody was flocking to those cities. I remember thinking, "Phoenix averages 7 inches of rain a year–how can anyone think that's sustainable for a billion people to inhabit?". There's a reason the Las Vegas area has been sparsely populated throughout the history of North America; it's a freaking desert!

  • And the rising cost of living unsustainably in these inhospitable areas is already starting to collide with the stagnant income of the average American. You can see it in the protests against any kind of water rationing.

    You know what really disappoints me? We have so many different types of climate and geography around this country, and instead of taking advantage of that to build things that make sense for each climate, we stubbornly try to build on the same pattern of suburban sprawl or glass towers everywhere.

    Talisker talks about how it would make more sense to live at least partially underground if you're going to live in the desert. Imagine if, when we had begun building Phoenix and L.A., we had thought about that. Today, Phoenix might look more like Mos Eisley and Jabba's Palace than Levittown-in-the-Desert. Our cities could (and should) each have their own architectural style, specific to their environmental requirements. Not only would our cities be more sustainable, they would be a lot more interesting.

    (Sorry, I don't know how to embed links, so, footnotes)
    Mos Eisley: http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/headhuntersholosuite/images/2/2a/Mos_Eisley_001.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20100609003901

    Jabba's Palace: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/starwars/images/3/3d/Jabbas_Palace.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20071211223828

    Levittown: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/LevittownPA.jpg

  • "At that point certain instruments on older planes may lose precision and smaller planes are subject to additional danger from the waves of heat radiating up from the ground."

    This response is completely unrelated to the rest of your post, and should not be construed to detract from its point, but what you described in that quote is not actually what's going on here. The reality is actually more interesting.

    Mesa Air Lines operates a fleet of Embraer E175, and that's the plane that was making the hop. While not as large as anything from, say, the Boeing 7XX family, these are not small planes on the scale that they'd have to worry about the asphalt's radiant heat. Also, while the E175 has been produces since 2002 (which itself is not all that old airframe-wise), Mesa's oldest planes are from 2014. So these are not old planes with instrument issues.

    What actually occurred is that as the air heats up it becomes less dense, and less dense air requires a faster airspeed in order for the plane to remain aloft. This is true of landings as well, where a certain maximum rate of descent is critical, thus requiring a minimal speed to be maintained to avoid falling too fast. At a certain point, the heat on and near the runway will require a landing speed so fast that once the plane touches down it won't have sufficient runway space to come to a stop before running past the end of the runway. When that happens, planes above the threshold size and configuration (since that also determines how long a plane takes to stop once the wheels touch ground) will be denied landing.

    The same effect is true of takeoff; at a certain temperature, insufficient lift will be generated by the time the plane reaches the end of the runway, and the plane won't be allowed out.

    Commercial pilots typically keep charts that tell them the maximum takeoff/landing temperatures allowable for that plane (often multiple based on min/max weight for the plane) for every airport of theoretically sufficient size in the general vicinity of their route. This heat wave simply blasted past that limit.

  • Here in Palm Springs, it was 123 yesterday. Our airport was still functioning, although flights to Phoenix were cancelled. We were told it had to do more with their not wanting ground crew to be on the tarmac in that heat. Apparently, our ground crew people are a heartier lot.

  • The horrible thing about climate change is that by the time you really start seeing the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere start to bite, it's far far too late to do anything about it.

    I work for an environmental non-profit, and it's hard not to be completely pessimistic about the state of civilization in the next 100 years. I mean, governments and non-profits are still talking about fixing this problem, but that ship sailed 20 years ago. We should be actively working on mitigating the effects of 4C (at best and more likely 6-8C) increase, which will be nothing short of devastating as there is simply no place to put 10 billion people on a planet that is 95% uninhabitable to humans.

    We're boned, folks. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

  • Visited Phoenix during the summer of 1998. Left the hotel, went for 3 mile hike and returned to the hotel comfortable and dry.

    Two days later, I left my office sixty miles south of Chicago, went for a three mile DRIVE and returned sweating like a pig.

    Dry heat is real. Also broke a sweat drinking a beer in Bloomington, Illinois.

  • I was in Las Vegas once. It mattered not that it was a dry heat, I start sweating once the temperature is above 85 or so, humidity or not. I was baking instead of boiling.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    One of the real absurdities, is that people in these desert suburbs want lawns with real grass – just like Mom and Pop had on Long Island.

    And, of course, have golf courses nearby, which use a huge amount of water.

    If you want to live there, have a lawn made of stones or sand.
    And as for playing golf, find a new sport/hobby.

  • Did not know those rules.
    Have landed a plane at Palm Springs at 121 F.
    Windows open, immediate smell of melting rubber upon touchdown.

  • I've reviewed projections that indicate pretty much everywhere between the forty-fifth parallels will be unihabitable desert.

    Pretty much everywhere now "habituated".

    There will be War, pestilence.

  • I've reviewed projections that indicate pretty much everywhere between the forty-fifth parallels will be unihabitable desert.

    Pretty much everywhere now "habitated".

    There will be War, pestilence.

  • Only one answer. Fewer people. Not stable population, fewer people. We're breeding (along with breeding the animals we like or like to eat) ourselves out of our only habitable world. As Calvin said to Hobbes, “You'd think planets like this were dime a dozen!"

  • HoosierPoli says:


    Those terriffic assholes who spout off about geoengineering are unfortunately probably right. The only way we'll beat global warming is dumping sulfur into the upper atmosphere to reflect heat. That will have all sorts of horrible knock-on effects but it's the only solution that's likely to be implemented on any human timescale.

  • Yeah….after the good guys solve all the problems you read about, you'll be faced with the fact that the oceans have been soaking up excess CO2 for some centuries and will easily and quickly replace whatever you remove from the atmosphere for a long, long time.

    Me? I'll be long gone.

  • Jestbill. I feel the opposite. The oceans have a huge capacity to scrub and sequester CO2. Giant algae blooms, etc. It's how we got our atmosphere in the first place.

  • The people in Arizona use water in mostly reasonable ways. It's the agriculture that is going to suffer, really. California is where that is going to really affect us, because Mexico and California are pretty much feeding us amazingly well and cheaply. Change that dynamic, and that's where it's going to hurt. Can avocados grow in Iowa? What about pecans? Because mesquite flour and agave are going to be okay for a while. Everything else? Most fruits and vegetables and meat is going to get crazy costly. (And don't even get started on seafood.)

    But don't worry. Expensive food never caused any political problems anywhere. Things will be okay.

  • Thank you Ryan. Hot air is thinner air. There are fewer molecules per cubic whatever. That means less lift.

    For those not aware, the world has been going through a drought that runs in a band a north of the equator. That has meant dry conditions in California and the US southwest, but also much less rain in the mideast and central Asia. The drought has exacerbated the problems in Syria. There is a war, but also failed agriculture driving displacement. Iran, with its antique, leaky irrigation system, is also suffering, and that may be one reason the leadership decided to go along with the new nuclear limitations. The Asian drought has affected India where crops have been failing and farmers committing suicide, and southeast Asia. The poor flow of the Mekong River has limited rice growing in Vietnam and a broad swath of farms have failed crops due to salt incursion.

    Obviously, how hard the drought hits depends on location, population density and available technology. The mideast could have done much better if anyone had been upgrading agricultural practices and fixing infrastructure. It looks like the drought may be ending this year, but there is good reason to believe that this kind of drought will become more common. There was a recent paper in Science about the monsoons and the rise and fall of the Harrapan civilization along a lost river near the India-Pakistan border. We, obviously, have a more advanced technology base, but it is not always possible to endure in the face of a long term drying trend. That, and the IMF and our dogmatic calls for austerity.


  • Chaco Canyon provides a nice preview of what will happen. Phoenix is a stupid, stupid place. They actually managed to change their climate there by insisting on using flood irrigation watering for their lawns. In newer developments they don't do it, but in the older sections of town they still do. Stupid, stupid place.

  • Chris Paulsen says:

    I read the line "transformers explode", instantly my mind conjured pics of Optimus Prime blowing up. Sad, the day that the Transformers could no longer live in Phoenix…

  • I still get choked up at Optimus dying in (the only good) Transformers:The Movie.the TV episodes after the movie really went to a dark place.

  • This may be Snopes territory, but my dad told me once that when he was a boy, Phoenix and Arizona in general were touted as healthful for people with respiratory problems. No pollen. The people who moved there were upset at the barren landscape and started planting the vegetation that they had grown up with. Now they have the same pollen problems as non-desert regions, and the mind-roasting heat.
    Makes me wish I was leaving a nicer planet for my kids

  • Buzz Nutter says:

    I grew up there, as a kid in the 60"s, we played baseball in the middle of the day. It was a dry heat, with an occasional dust storm (locals hate the term Haboob") followed by rain. We had a swamp box in our home until we got air-conditioning in 1968. That was about the time the Metro area approached a million people.

    I flew into Phoenix the last time is was 120 degrees, maybe 25 years ago. They closed the airport soon after we landed. We drove to Sedona to stay in Oak Creek Canyon where is was 105 degrees. Miserable.

    Old Phoenix, where I grew up is still pretty nice. Downtown is redeveloping. The rest of the valley is a vapid hellhole. Anyone with any dough leaves for the mountains (fires anyone?) or the coast.from June through labor day. Old Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff are pretty liberal. Scottsdale and the rest of the state are reliably red, due in large part to the Mormons in the state houses. Phoenix mayor is a democrat.

    The friends I grew up with decamped to Tucson (hot, but not Phoenix hot), or other parts of the west.

    Great place to grow up 50, even 30 years ago. Now it is the city of "muscle" where it is easy to get an entry level job picking product at an Amazon warehouse…..ugh.

  • Robert,

    My mother in law was born in Arizona, her parents relocated there for her fathers respiratory issues at the time. So yes the first part is true for sure.

    I have heard the second part of that story as well.

  • TheBloodyNine says:

    I was visiting my cousin and his family in Phoenix earlier this month. I left on June 4 when the temp was somewhere around 115F. Our flight was 45 minutes late leaving because the left engine wouldn't start because of the heat. They had to bring out a cart to fire it up.

    I live in Upstate NY and thought >100F with low humidity is cooler than >90F and high humidity.

  • @SeaTea: " The oceans have a huge capacity to scrub and sequester CO2. Giant algae blooms, etc. It's how we got our atmosphere in the first place."

    At what level of CO2 do expect that to begin?
    Things that live in shells are being dissolved even now so I doubt that humans will benefit.

  • @SeaTea – The problem with giant algae blooms is that algae doesn't live that long, and when giant algae blooms die off that have a tendency to suck up all the dissolved oxygen in the immediate area as they decompose. Oxygen that livings things that live in the water need to stay alive. That's effectively what a red tide is, and they pretty much fuck everything up on a local scale.

    That's the problem with any sort of solution that involves planting trees or relying on algae. Plants sequester carbon for sure, but that carbon is sequestered only for as long as that plant lives. When it dies, that carbon is back in the air. What our civilization essentially runs on is taking sequestered carbon out of the ground and putting it in the air all at once. We have to figure out a way to get that carbon back underground. There's a natural mechanism for that, but it takes a few million years and we don't have the time for that.

  • @Maj. Kong:

    I would suggest that Phoenix is not without one helluva beach,, it just lacks an ocean–or any water that would last more than a short time if the aqueduct went down.

  • Seconding the recommendation on The Water Knife. The author is Paulo Bacigalupi, who some may remember from his debut, The Wind-Up Girl. One reservation though: He's not the 'hardest' of sf writers, so if can't read sf unless the math adds up, avoid.

  • Ya know what else? Bugs. Remember those dragonflies with 3-foot wingspans during the high-CO2 high-heat Cretaceous?

    Forest succumbing to beetle and aphid infestations. Disease-carrying mosquitos spreading like, well, a plague. Ditto disease-carrying ticks and fleas. Stock up on heartworm pills for your dog.

    What do I remember about summers in the Midwest? Deer flies, horse flies, ticks, and clouds of mosquitoes.

    Good times comin'…

  • moderateindy says:

    AS far as when does it become inhabitable, as long as energy is available, never. My nephew lives in Dubai. Not only sweltering heat, but oppressive humidity to boot. I occasionally check the weather there and it will be like 2 a.m. and the temp will be like 103, feels like 118. Basically, the people don't spend any time outside between late May and early October, so it's not much different than a Chicago winter.
    Teusday night I was driving in Chicago's south loop, and it was teeming with people out, and about; if you see more tha half a dozen people out in that area during winter you wonder if something odd is happening.
    So as long as there is energy available for heating/cooling nowhere is uninhabitable.
    Water is the real problem. Whoever invents a cheap easy way to desalinate water will probably be the first Trillionaire.
    As far as food goes, two words: Soylent Green

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