I blink and the edges of my eyelids feel like they’re being singed. My cheeks burn like they’re being pressed with a hot iron to tackle a stack of crumpled shirts. It’s 4 p.m. I look at my 12 year old son whose face is flushed. He groans and puts his hand on his forehead to protect his eyes from the blazing sun.
The temperature is 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius).
My family knows that such temperatures are dangerous. We have lived here for four years. This time, however, we’re only outside for a few minutes to conduct an important experiment: How long does it take to cook a quesadilla on the sidewalk?
Such is life these days in Phoenix, one of the hottest cities in the world. But for us this summer is the last here; This weekend I’m moving to New York with my family to start my job as – wait a minute – global climate and environment news director at the Associated Press.
I’m leaving town for Phoenix on a unique summer
When I work with AP journalists around the world on climate change stories, as I have done since I took office last year, I recognize the irony. I am leaving a city witnessing a major climate change moment in a summer that we may remember as a turning point in both the advance of global warming and its devastating extreme weather effects, and in the developed world’s awareness of what is happening. Developing countries have long been particularly hard hit by climate change.
Earlier this week, Phoenix broke its own record for a major city with consecutive days exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius). This isn’t just something for the record books, it’s an odd fact for weather enthusiasts. That’s significant because there’s no end to the heat in sight – and temperatures can reach 110 degrees or more throughout July.
That would be uncharted territory even for a city used to extreme heat. It also raises questions about the long-term viability of a metro area that was America’s fastest-growing metro area between 2010 and 2020, according to the US Census.
For decades, scientists have warned that continued burning of fossil fuels would lead to planetary warming and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. We’ve seen this with weather-related disasters around the world, and Phoenix isn’t immune. But when the already extreme becomes super-extreme, it opens a window into a potentially scary future.
A “desert rat” moves on
“I’m a desert rat,” I’ve heard friends say, and after four years I know what they mean.
The crowds that have flocked here haven’t just come for the jobs, though booms in tech, higher education and other industries have brought many with them. Compared to other major cities in the western US, they’re not just here for cheaper housing (that’s gone; Phoenix has gotten very expensive).
Many people feel a deep desire to be here, which may sound odd to many Americans who only know the city’s notorious extreme summer heat. The Arizona desert is filled with giant saguaro cacti, towering palm trees, and forbidding landscapes that are always bathed in the powerful sun. She has a beauty that evokes feelings of freedom and possibility.
Eight months out of the year, the weather in Phoenix is nothing short of amazing. Sunny, temperatures between 16 and 29 degrees Celsius and clear skies. Almost every day. The city and surrounding towns like Mesa, Gilbert, Scottsdale, Tempe, and Chandler — all part of the larger metropolitan area locally referred to as the “Valley of the Sun” — are easy to navigate because the land is flat. Everything has been designed to feel like a big, giant grid.
Then summer comes and daily life has to change drastically. Biking, hiking, camping and numerous other outdoor activities that have been common for eight months have all but ground to a halt. Construction workers work in shifts that start in the middle of the night and end in the early morning. Kids go to trampoline parks, gyms, and indoor camps.
People who have a pool at home take a dip early in the morning and in the evening because the sun makes the water act like a whirlpool during the day. Affordable residents vacation out of state in the summer or take weekend trips to Flagstaff, a two-hour drive north, where temperatures are about 25 degrees cooler than Phoenix because of the elevation.
SOME MEMORIES BEFORE DEPARTURE
While most people find ways to deal with it, some are left behind. The homeless are particularly at risk, a population whose population is growing. Shelters and refrigeration centers, which are essentially public buildings like libraries that stay open for hours, are all part of attempts to get them off the streets. With good reason: Most of the heat-related deaths in Phoenix are not due to people inside their homes, but to people outside.
But while the summers are brutal for most residents, we get into a flow because the weather has a rhythm.
Temperatures exceed 110 degrees for several days, sometimes reaching into the high teens or reaching 120 (49 degrees Celsius). But then daily highs drop overnight to under 100 or even over 90 degrees (32 to 38 degrees Celsius), which feels a bit breezy after days of more intense heat.
The drops are caused by upcoming cooler winds or intense rain showers, so-called monsoons. We all get outside, especially in the mornings and late evenings when temperatures drop far enough to be outside and not feel like the body is trapped in an oven.
After a few days of partial relief, the intense heat comes back. And we all go back inside and wait. We repeat the cycle and look forward to autumn. This pattern of intense heat and temporary dips continued into 2020, another record-breaking summer with a total of 53 days over 110.
What worries me about this heat wave is that it’s not happening. This could be a harbinger of future heat waves, both in Phoenix and around the world. Since Saturday there have been 23 days in a row with temperatures above 110 degrees; Forecasts show that the extreme heat could last at least 10 more days. So far, city officials and most Phoenix residents seem to be fine with it. But while the city escapes largely unscathed, this period can certainly be seen as the start of big changes – not for the better.
And for those of you who have stuck with me for so long, let’s not forget the odd case of the sun-baked quesadilla. did it cook The answer: Within 15 minutes, the cheese had melted into lumps and the flour tortilla was hard.
“Disgusting,” said the 12-year-old. “I’ll have a bite,” I replied.
Turns out he was right. We got rid of the quesadilla. Then, as we stood there in the Phoenix sun, we did the only sane thing we could, given everything around us: we went back inside and packed our bags again, saying goodbye to this oddly baked town just ahead of us.
The Associated Press’s climate and environmental reporting is supported by several private foundations. For more information on AP’s climate initiative, click here. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow Peter Prengaman on Twitter at