Unchecked global heating will bring once unthinkable extreme heat, with 16 US cities to rival summer highs seen in Middle East
The climate crisis risks pushing many Americans into entirely new climatic realities, with a new analysis finding there are 16 US cities at risk of having summer temperatures on a par with locations in the Middle East by the end of the century.
Heatwaves have roiled huge swaths of the US this summer, placing nearly a third of the population under some sort of heat advisory and driving temperatures to as high as 115F (46C) in parts of the Great Plains. Hundreds of heat records have tumbled, from Boston, Massachusetts, which hit 100F (37C), to Portland, Oregon, which reached 102F (38.9C) on Tuesday.
But global heating may plunge many places in the US into the sort of heat extremes previously considered unthinkable, shifting their climates long-term into conditions now common in places far farther south, or even far overseas.
An analysis of temperature trends by Climate Central found that summer temperatures in 2100 for many cities will be more like conditions farther south, 437 miles to the south on average, with Washington DC having summers more like Austin, Texas‘; Boston becoming more like Philadelphia; and Billings, Montana, resembling El Paso, Texas.
Some US cities could be shifted to the sort of climates now experienced by cities in other countries, such as Los Angeles becoming more like Tuxpan in Mexico. A select few may go on an epic climatic journey by the end of the century, with Austin’s summers becoming like present-day Dubai, Phoenix resembling Saudi Arabia and Las Vegas getting similar to Kuwait.
“The real risks will be in heatwaves that are now occasional extremes that will start lasting longer,” said Peter Girard, a spokesperson for Climate Central, a research organization made up of climate scientists and science communicators. “These sort of heatwaves will become normal and the dangers will be far more present. There will be people who have never needed air conditioning who will face this. It can quickly go from uncomfortable to dangerous.”
Researchers gathered temperature data from 1990 to 2020 to establish today’s “normal” temperature and looked at 20 different projections of temperatures this century under different climate change scenarios. They decided to compare the status quo to a scenario where planet-heating emissions are not radically reduced and the global average temperature rises by about 3.6C by the end of the century.
The world has already heated up by about 1.2C from preindustrial times, a situation that has already helped spur the sort of fierce heatwaves and wildfires recently experienced in the US and Europe. “Extreme heat is a silent killer, yet it affects more Americans than any other weather emergency, particularly our nation’s most vulnerable,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House’s national climate adviser.
Many analysts expect that the temperature rise will be constrained to below 3.6C, due to the rising use of renewable energy, but Girard said even lower levels of warming will cause shifts in the climatic norms of US cities.
“No matter the scenario, this will be a near-term challenge pretty much everywhere,” he said. “Reducing emissions will slow the temperature rise and give governments and cities more time to take steps to keep people safe.”