Another spell of extremely high temperatures gripped Atlanta on Wednesday and is expected to stick around on Thursday, as the remnants of a heat wave that shattered records across the Upper Midwest and Great Plains settles over the Southeast.
Temperatures in Atlanta on Wednesday flirted with a record-high and triple digits, just a week after the city smashed a 70-year-old daily temperature record when it hit 99 degrees.
Highs Thursdays were forecast for the mid-90s, though Atlanta is expected to get a reprieve into the weekend.
For those with the means to stay cool indoors, these kinds of temperatures are an inconvenience. But for vulnerable groups — like the elderly, young children, people with chronic medical conditions and those who take certain drugs — the heat can pose serious health risks, experts say.
“Our body has a range of range of mechanisms to try to release excess heat to the environment, but when those become inadequate, your core body temperature can rise and start to damage your cells and organs,” said Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington.
More than 600 people die each year in the U.S. from extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it one of the most deadly kinds of natural disasters.
Those whose jobs require them to be outside and exposed to sweltering conditions, like Harper, can also be at risk of dehydration or heat illness.
In his efforts to help others stay cool, Harper‘s work often requires him to climb into customers’ attics. If temperatures are in the 90s outside, he said they can climb to 150 degrees or even higher in an unventilated attic.
“I like to go and get the job done and move on, but especially in this heat, you’ve got to take your time — you can’t spend 15 or 20 minutes in an attic,” he said. “You’ve got to come down and rest for a few minutes and get some water.”
Even the most efficient AC systems can struggle to cool a house, particularly if the home is older and not well insulated.
Dr. Erica Holloman-Hill, the CEO of the environmental consulting firm Ayika Solutions Inc., said the home she inherited in East Point, where she now raises four children of her own, falls into that category.
The home was built in the 1940s and Holloman-Hill says she and her family have had to abandon their upstairs for most of the day to keep cool.
“I wouldn’t say it’s miserable, but it’s not the most pleasant thing for children under 10,” Holloman-Hill said. “At least you’re indoors, but it’s still just as hot — You’re still sweating and taking your clothes off and you’re still running your AC.”
In response to the heat wave, the city of Atlanta again opened a cooling center at the Old MLK Natatorium from noon to 7 p.m. this Wednesday through Friday.
Though Atlanta is no stranger to summer heat, the risk faced by many of its residents is expected to grow if human-caused climate change continues unchecked.
Average temperatures in Atlanta have already ticked up by about 3 degrees since the 1930s, according to data from the National Weather Service. The city also experiences around six more heat waves — a stretch of two or more days with abnormally warm temperatures — each year than it did 60 years ago, according to an analysis of federal data.
Climate change is loading the dice in favor of more intense, frequent and long-lasting heat waves, Ebi said.
Rising temperatures have also created a vicious cycle when it comes to air conditioning and energy use.
If temperatures are high, AC units need to run more often to cool down homes, which in turn requires more energy. Today, much of that energy still comes from the burning of fossil fuels, pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Scientists say these emissions are causing global warming, which is, in part, driving higher demand for air conditioning.
As Georgia enters the thick of summer, there is little hope in sight for relief from the heat. A forecast issued last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned of an increased chance of above average temperatures for all of the state through September.
And looking ahead, the sweltering heat Atlanta has experienced recently may be a mere preview of what the future holds.
Without efforts to limit emissions, a 2020 study found as many as three-quarters of summer days in the Northern Hemisphere could feature dangerous, around the clock heat by 2100. The study found that some of the largest increases in extreme heat are expected in the southern United States.
A note of disclosure
This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/