Last week, after visiting friends and family in California -- few days in Bay Area, few days in San Diego, with glorious, low-humidity sunshine, 70-something (F) days, 50-something-sleeping-windows-open! nights – I got home and opened my own front door. “Oh, no.”
Hot, stuffy house, just outside DC. Oh, no. Death knell for my long-suffering air-conditioning system?
Hot, soupy outside, too. DC was a swamp, drained a few hundred years ago. I live in the highest point in the DC area, with hills, but they are nowhere near hilly enough provide cooler air. I opened a few windows, to let in the humidity and the dream of a cross-breeze.
Home, in “a week featuring the hottest weather we’ve seen this summer so far,” in a summer with 30 days above 90-degrees (so far) with “feels like” temps well over 100, according to the Capital Weather Gang of The Washington Post (7/31/21).
I dropped my suitcase and checked the post-WWII thermostat, which goes up to 86 F. The red needle kissed the top of its highest hatch-mark. My system is well over 30 years old, but repair techs have managed to keep it alive. (I recognize most AC company names, since I worked for 9 years for an association of HVAC contractors.) The techs always add,
“They don’t make ‘em like this any more.”
Unlike the Mediterranean climate of the Pacific coast, the east coast features fabulously uncomfortable and ever-more-deadly “wet bulb temperatures.”
High humidity on top of high temperatures. “Wet bulb,” a new term to me, learned during yet-another record-breaking summer. The term feels accurate whenever you step outside in recent summers in eastern zip-codes. Your body like a soaked light-bulb, burning and steaming, or a storm-dripped onion-bulb, out in a hot, hot yard. Whatever the bulb of it, your poor mammalian, largely hairless pores will fill with sweat in seconds, just standing still. Sweat with nowhere to go. You’re screwed. And it's only 7:30 am.
This feels nothing like the excellent sweat of a hill-climb in mostly shaded woods, or the barely perceptible sweat, washed away during a good hour of lap-lane effort. (The Tokyo Olympics are underway with thrilling swim races, even if you haven't pulled water since ... pandemic shutdown, sigh.)
Wet-bulb physiology is tough-breathing, unrewarding, even threatening, and more and more “normal” life in the U.S. east, and worse in many places around the globe in global warming. A wet-bulb climate-zone does not absolve its wet populace of drought-based, fire-risk restrictions; wet doesn’t mean rain, just humidity. We may still face restrictions on watering gardens or lawns or taking a longer shower.
Like many humans now, I don’t know where to live any more; even a basic storm now is a severe storm -- trees down, power out, roads closed, cars half-submerged. And if you live in a country without America's outsized abundance and privilege, you may not have the luxury of wondering where to live any more. Droughts are deadly, floods are deadly, fires are deadly. Even without political threats, economic strangles -- or war raging -- underway. Yet migrating to a "better place"? May not be better, or livable.
Of many reasons why the coast of California costs so much to live: the gift of weather, temperate and congenial. "They've got earthquakes there!" Okay, known risk, but earthquakes don't wreck a place day after day, or season by season, or even decade by decade. Watering your happy flowers and vegetables, okay, essential. But. Especially lately. The fires. All the smoke, from close-enough wildfires. Nowhere to go, not always possible to outrun, and starting earlier and earlier. Then again, don't a heap of folks want to move there, on any given day, and for good reason?
And then again, aren’t we all going to die? Aren’t we all living somewhere on Earth, now, where our foolish, new-ish (over millennia) sources of energy could ultimately kill us? Where our conveyances could crush us in an intersection? Or, as Moira Rose told her John after surviving a motel fire on "Schitt's Creek," he "could get bopped on the head by a piece of space debris!"
I find my brain spinning into existential space-debris orbit, after a long, wet-bulb week.
And, we can hope, it’s not too late. And, it’s exhausting, as one human at a time, trying to impact practices and policies that enrich a certain yet powerful few, on our home planet, in the throes of grand-mal climactic seizures. (If these extreme events are even "grand," yet.)
During lifeguard training as a 15-year-old, I remember taking a test on signs and symptoms of heat-exhaustion and heat-stroke. When sweat can’t evaporate. The air is also saturated, so human sweat has nowhere to go. Organ systems, including the brain, start to shut down. Possibly terminally. These threats, presented as “look out for the oldest pool patrons” on the hot days. Those patrons who may not realize they need to hydrate differently, find shade, find cooler indoor environments.
Everyone needs to hydrate differently, I think, in century 21, 3rd rock from the Sun. I realize this, then forget this, then feel dizzy in the 95%-shaded woods sometimes, and remember only then, the risk of summer-induced stroke.
People are dying of heat-stroke this July in places where air-conditioning was long-considered wasteful, even absurd. Northern latitudes like British Columbia, Canada, and Washington state, Oregon. Places where more southerly residents, with greater means, would secure summer homes, summer respites from the lower-hotter latitudes. Where the air felt good, inside and out, before Willis Carrier thought about humidity and temperature in a railway station, and cooling air-equipment soon followed.
Almost 1,000 persons have died this month in western North America, from causes heat-related. In August of 2003 in France, almost 15,000 (mostly elderly) people died. Part of it was utter unfamiliarity with high temperatures, staying hydrated, recognizing signs of heat exhaustion. Part of it was social isolation, and/or economic disparity. Fear of cracking open a hot window to the street. And public policies that (logically, if sadly) had focused on floods, storms, rare earthquakes, even terrorist attacks, but not life-threatening heat, from industrial-era climactic environments. Similar mass -tragedies in Russia, 2010, and too many other places in our young 21st century. No planning for this, because no imagining this, not this bad.
Meanwhile, in this same “anomalous” July, 8 inches of rain fell in one hour in China. And, anomalously, 2 months of rain fell in one hour in Germany. Whole towns are gone. After unprecedented rainfalls, floodwaters filled subway stations in New York City. 23 inches of rain fell in one day in Mumbai, India.
Meanwhile, severe drought, and wildfires, rage, not too far from some of the worst floods. It’s become such a challenge to understand our own planet, full of so very many persons, and so much ‘unprecedented.’
Remember Al Gore? His 2006 book and film, An Inconvenient Truth, warned us all about greenhouse gases, the ozone layer, and climate change. An increase of world average temperature by 1 or 2 degrees-F would be a very big deal, and impact our lives with extreme weather – not necessarily hotter weather -- everywhere. Yet I still hear people mock those warnings whenever it snows, or feels cold for a week in winter. “So much for global warming! Haha!”
Right, that’d be a No. Not funny. Not for any of us humans, or any mammals. Also coral, fish, amphibians, reptiles, if not plant life.
Gotta trust that certain plants may well thrive within our “anomalies” of climate, once we mammals-and-more have nowhere to go. We could become a whole new Venus. Gotta wonder about Venusian ancient-history. No one ever talks about that! For one, I would be interested to hear about that.
Is it so wrong for me to admit: I might feel grateful and relieved for my home planet, if humans ultimately have nowhere to go? That I might feel a kind of karmic schadenfreude -- about my own species! -- even as I myself might gasp in my own clover-rich grass, painfully and ever more slowly, prostrate or supine in a backyard full of raised and scorched and inedible tomatoes, peppers, cukes … my own poor pores … plus lungs, long-damaged by 2nd-hand-smoked childhood-and-youth … all just too full of wet-bulbed Earthly life, then fatal heat-stroke?
Is it so wrong for me to calculate that my own expiration from climate change would be … ‘natural’ and expected, as one of my species, my crazy creative and inventive, yet greedy and narcissistic, species?
Oh, Earthlings. My people. My hottening and willfully dismissive – about our very life and personal death -- species?
This month, and these past few years, what scientists have called “anomalies”? To paraphrase Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride, ‘you keep saying this word anomaly; I do not think it means what you think it means.’ Not any more.
Before unpacking from California, I went downstairs to my basement. It’s finished, with walls and carpeting, and largely underground. My basement is usually a good, reliable and palpable 15 degrees cooler.
Not any more. Not in July of 2021, back from coastal-Cali wonderland, where I slept so well. Back to a climate where, days on end, the overnight temp barely dips below 80F. Here, even the cool underground will cook.
Try to sleep? My vertical tower-fan would have to fool me overnight in my main-floor bed. If I were lucky. For several days of telework and nights of trying to sleep.
Sleepwise, not so lucky, even fanwise.
And, I’m very lucky. On Monday morning when I called Academy Heating & A/C, they could send someone out later the same day. Back in May they had replaced my flux capacitor (I probably paraphrase) for a mere $288, to keep the old thing cranking. Now a few months later, the tech explained the fan had ‘aged off’ and fallen straight down to the bottom of the unit. So, nothing reaching the cooling coils. I needed a whole new AC system.
“They don’t make ‘em like this any more,” he said. “They don’t even make this Trane for residential any more at all.” I hadn't even realized mine used Freon, HCFC-22, banned for good reason.
I’m very lucky. They were able to schedule the new install later this week. And I could earn more travel miles on my Visa with a new AC system, for whenever I can get on an airplane again.
I'm very lucky. My house is so small, the cost was much less than friends had described for their new systems, over the years. For the past two nights, I've actually slept comfortably.
The heat wave also broke, coincidentally, so outside was a sweet 60-something overnight. But we’re not done with the dog-days yet, and I can’t blame a star called Sirius. And whenever I do find someplace to go, a new system might help with resale.
Thank you, Academy Heating & A/C.
In May of 1987, I took a job at a national not-for-profit association of HVAC professionals. In September of 1987, the U.S. signed the Montreal Protocol, against the wishes of some of our members. Initially they fought the agreement, largely from the expense of overhauling their industry’s installation, maintenance and repair with a suite of refrigerants like HCFC-22 (Freon). My new boss, Jim, later a great personal friend and mentor, took a lot of heat (pun not intended, but I’ll leave it).
Jim made speeches saying, “It’s the right thing to do,” as I joined the organization. The ozone layer mattered.
“But how will we ever afford to retrofit or replace all the systems in place now?” they asked.
“I get it,” he’d say. “But it’s the right thing to do, and we’re the ones to do it.” He meant that some body, some group of like-minded and -abled folks, like a guild in medieval times, would also be the perfect folks to work with the EPA, to steer the modern, climate-controlled path into one that made more sense (survival-wise) in both the short- and long-term.
James P. stood up at podia in regional and national meetings and argued that our organization would be the optimal group to usher in a responsible – and, oh, by the way, profitable – shift in Earth’s understanding of all things air-cooled. He took the heat.
And gradually, the nationwide membership of businessmen (yes, sigh, men, at the time; the board of directors featured only men during my 9 years there) boarded his ship of radical responsibility. The Montreal Protocol mattered. Our planet’s climate mattered. Our membership as a country on the planet mattered. The contribution of a not-for-profit modern ‘guild’ not only mattered, but served an essential role in the transformation of chemical solvents that actually saved lives, and needed alternatives, right?
Refrigerants now kept food fresh as it traveled far and wide to places "out of season." Kept insulin meaningful, for persons with diabetes, right. They kept certain antibiotics meaningful, ones that would have saved the lives of family members, in the days before antibiotics. Could have kept many from suffering heat-exhaustion or heat-stroke, in the days before all things environmentally controlled and air-cooled.
Wouldn’t finding less-destructive refrigerants serve as meaningful alternatives? Not just short- but long-term?
Yes. Yes, they would. (Digressing to note that our COVID vaccines needed refrigerant preservation, or where would we be in that regard, in July of 2021?) So earnest ‘mom-and-pop’ companies like Academy Heating & A/C would survive to locate an ancient fan, now at the bottom of an ancient A/C unit on a quiet corner of a DC-suburb.
Soapbox moment, if you’re still with me: As Michael Pollan advised years ago: Eat food (real, whole food). Not too much. Mostly plants. And as many others advise: please drive fuel-efficient cars; support radically responsible activists like young school strikers, inspired by young Greta Thunberg; grow your own, if you can; walk, if you can; take public transport, if you can; make it harder for fossil-fuel profiteers to get richer and richer as they approach their inevitable deaths; acknowledge our own inevitable deaths; think about doing what will help future generations of life on Earth, well beyond our own generations and personal deaths; please pressure municipalities and local, state, national governments and other profitable centers to think about caring for persons, one human at a time, in times of environmental stress, whether from flood, heat, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, freezing cold, times that are, more and more, all the time times.
Jumping off my soapbox to thank you for reading, and for doing whatever you can. You might watch BBC's David Attenborough in his latest shows about our planet. He believes it's not too late. But it's almost too late.
Stay safe and be well,
For more on wet-bulb temperatures and heat-related deaths: