Weatherbox: Part II

Chatterbox slightly mangled in last week’s “Weatherbox” item the meaning of the “hottest-ever” weather data available from NOAA. Chatterbox, wanting to get people to quit whining about the heat wave, used the data to point out that it’s been a lot hotter, which it has. The data itself (including the hottest-ever temperature recorded officially–136 degrees Farenheit in El Azizia, Libya on Sept. 13, 1922–and the hottest-ever temperature recorded officially in the U.S.–134 degrees in Death Valley, Calif., on July 10, 1913) were correct. But Chatterbox, his mind clearly addled by the heat (it’s much cooler now) misinterpreted the rankings below “hottest-ever” of both worldwide temperatures and U.S. temperatures. Chatterbox thanks the many readers who wrote in to inform him of his error.

The NOAA data show the hottest days ever recorded on various continents, in declining order. Therefore, it’s rash to conclude (as Chatterbox did) that the second-hottest temperature in known human history was the 134 degrees recorded in Death Valley–cited by NOAA as the hottest-ever temperature in North America, and as a temperature hotter than any other recorded by NOAA for any continent that isn’t Africa. More likely, the second-hottest day in known human history probably occurred somewhere in Africa, where somebody probably measured a temperature of 135 degrees Farenheit. But this would not be included on the NOAA chart because Africa’s record is the 136 degrees figure for El Azizia, Libya, in 1922. Chatterbox’s rankings for the U.S. were similarly skewed, since NOAA’s chart listed all-time highs for individual states; hence the second-hottest day in the United States was probably not June 29, 1994, when it hit 128 degrees in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and 125 degrees Fahrenheit in Laughlin, Nev. Rather, the second-hottest day probably occurred in the same location as the hottest day, i.e., Death Valley, Calif., which is really, really hot. Indeed, a guy named Dinesh Desai claims to have recorded a temperature of 129 degrees while walking across Death Valley in July 1998. (Chatterbox’s rankings for third hottest, fourth hottest, etc., are, of course, similarly botched.)

A reader e-mailed Chatterbox some intriguing evidence that the temperature may have lately spiked past El Azizia, Libya’s, 1922 world record of 136 degrees Farenheit–though not, of course, anywhere near these shores. Sgt. Scott Comiskey of the U.S. Army, who since April has been stationed in Kuwait, claims that it hit 142 degrees one day out on the live fire range. “I fought in the Gulf War,” writes Comiskey, “and I can tell you this is the worst heat I have ever felt.” Members of his task force were given T-shirts that say “142” in order to commemorate the event. This is not an officially sanctioned figure, but Chatterbox trusts the U.S. Army to handle a thermometer.

None of these qualifications negates Chatterbox’s message that it can get a lot hotter than it was last week in much of the U.S. Certainly Chatterbox means no disrespect to the (mostly elderly) people who died in the recent U.S. heat wave. But Chatterbox finds himself wondering why this heat wave, which stretched across the Midwest, the South, and the East, killed so many people in Chicago, a city in a relatively northern latitude that is reputed to be Windy and situated on a very big lake. (By now it’s cooled down to 83 degrees at Chicago’s Midway Airport, according to the Chicago Tribune’s weather Web page. Click here for links to the Tribune’s coverage of the heat wave.) According to the Tribune, Chicago had about 2.7 heat deaths per 100,000 people, “a higher rate of these fatalities than Southern cities such as Atlanta and Miami,” which tend to be hotter.

One reason, apparently, is that Chicago doesn’t have enough air conditioners for low-income people. Quoth the Tribune:

Air conditioning is not standard equipment in low-income housing here, said Steve Forman, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago … Only four of the 58 Chicago Housing Authority buildings for senior citizens have air conditioning in every room, according to CHA spokeswoman Karen Bates. CHA director Phil Jackson and Mayor Richard M. Daley have made it a goal to increase the number of units that provide residents with air conditioning, said Daley’s press secretary, Jacquelyn Heard.

Interestingly, the city’s deaths and power outages came “despite a citywide emergency plan” that was implemented after an even worse heat wave in 1995, and despite the fact that forecasts “accurately predicted record-scraping temperatures” (this again, according to the Tribune). However, Cook County’s heat-wave death toll–70 people since July 19 (out of about 185 nationwide)–isn’t as bad as in 1995. The Tribune attributes this to the emergency plan, which had police ferrying about 1,200 people without air conditioning or fans to “cooling centers.”

Still, Chatterbox doesn’t remember hearing before a few years ago about Chicago’s unusual number of heat-related deaths. Chatterbox phoned Eric Klinenberg, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Berkeley, who’s writing a book about the 1995 Chicago heat wave, to dig deeper. Klinenberg says the phenomenon is partly related to the recent decline of Chicago’s industrial base. As sociologist William Julius Wilson points out in When Work Disappears, this decline has led to a lot of black migration out of Chicago. But when that happens, Klinenberg says, a lot of old folks stay put, and are therefore cut off from family support networks. Much the same is happening with white workers, Klinenberg says. As it happens, the heat-related deaths are concentrated among the white and black populations–and largely bypassing the city’s sizable Latino population. That’s mainly because “Latinos in Chicago are in a different migration cycle. Their numbers in the city have been increasing. … They’re newer arrivals and they’re continuing to come in.” In other words, the young Latino folks are situated near the old Latino folks, and can help them escape the heat. (To read Klinenberg’s article, “Autopsie d’un été meurtrier à Chicago,” in Le Monde Diplomatique, click here. Warning: As the title suggests, it’s in French.)