February 21, 2024

Leaving the blistering Phoenix sun, AP’s climate news director reflects on life in the desert

I blink, and the edges of my eyelids feel like they are being sung. My cheeks burn as if they were pressed with a hot iron ready to fight a pile of wrinkled shirts. It’s 4 pm I look at my 12-year-old son, whose face is flushed. He lets out a sigh and puts his hand on his forehead to shield his eyes from the blazing sun.

It is 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius).

My family knows that it is dangerous to be in this temperature. We have lived here for four years. This time, though, we’re only out for a few minutes to do an important experiment: How long will 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 our last here; this weekend, I’m moving with my family to New York for my job as — wait for it — The Associated Press’ global climate and environmental news director.

I’M LEAVING HOME FOR AN AUTO SUMMER FOR THE PHOENIX

Working with AP journalists around the globe on climate change stories, as I have for the past year since taking on this role, I recognize the irony. I am leaving a city where massive climate change is taking place during the summer we may remember as an inflection point the progress of global warming and its terrible weather consequences and the awareness of the developed world of what is happening. Developing countries have long been hit hard by climate change.

Earlier this week, Phoenix broke its own record for a major city with consecutive days above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius). That’s not just something for the record books, it’s unusual for weather forecasters. It’s significant because there’s no end in sight to the heat — and all of July could see temperatures of 110-degrees or higher.

That would be an unusual ending even for a city accustomed to dealing with extreme heat. It also raises questions about the long-term viability of an urban area that had the fastest growth in America between 2010 and 2020, according to the US Census.

For decades, scientists have been warning that the continued burning of fossil fuels would lead to global warming and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. We’ve seen this in weather-related disasters around the globe, and Phoenix is ​​not immune. But when the extreme already becomes overwhelming, it provides a glimpse of a potentially terrifying future.

‘DESERT RAT’ IS ON

“I’m an abandoned rat,” I’ve heard friends say, and for four years I’ve known what they mean.

The crowds that have moved here have not only come for the jobs, although there has been a boom in technology, higher education and other industries. Nor are they here for cheaper housing compared to other large cities in the Western United States (it doesn’t exist anymore; Phoenix has become very expensive).

Many people love being here, which may seem strange to many Americans who are only familiar with the city’s infamous summer heat. The Arizona desert, full of giant saguaro cactuses, palm trees and menacing terrain, with the mighty sun always beaming above, has a beauty that evokes feelings of freedom and possibility.

Eight months a year, Phoenix’s weather is nothing short of spectacular. Sunny, temperatures from 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (16 to 29 degrees Celsius) and clear skies. Just about every day. The city and surrounding cities such as Mesa, Gilbert, Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler – all part of the larger metropolitan area known locally as the “Valley of the Sun” – are easy to navigate because the land is flat. It’s all designed in a way that makes it feel like one giant grid.

Then comes summer, and daily life has to change significantly. Cycling, hiking, camping and many other outdoor activities are common during eight months, but they never end. Construction workers work 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 with swimming pools at home take dips early in the morning and at night, because during the day the sun can make the water feel like a Jacuzzi. Residents who can afford it take their vacations 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 high elevation.

SOME THOUGHTS RANGES SOME EVENTS

While most people find ways to cope, some are left behind. Homeless people, a growing population, are particularly vulnerable. Shelters and cooling centers, which are essentially public buildings like libraries that are kept open for long hours, are part of efforts to get them off the streets. For good reason: most heat-related deaths in Phoenix come not from people in their own homes, but from people outside.

But for most of the residents, although the summers are brutal, we go into flow because the weather has a rhythm.

For several days at a time, the temperature will top 110 degrees, sometimes in the high teens or get to 120 (49 degrees Celsius). But then, from one day to the next, the daily high temperature will drop to the low 100s or even high 90s (32 to 38 degrees Celsius), which feels, after more intense heat days, kind of sunny.

The drops occur from incoming cooler winds, or intense bursts of rain, known as monsoons. We all go outside, especially in the morning and late evening, when the temperature drops enough to be outside and not feel like your body is trapped in an oven.

After a few days of partial relief, the intense heat returns. And we all go back inside and wait it out. We repeat the cycle as we look forward to the fall. That pattern of intense heat and temporary fall was there even during 2020, a summer in which it was surpassed on record with a total of 53 days over 110.

What worries me about this heat wave is that it isn’t breaking. This could be a cluster of future heat waves, both in Phoenix and around the world. As of Saturday, it’s been 23 straight days of temperatures over 110 degrees; Forecasts indicate that the extreme heat could continue for at least another 10 days. So far, city officials and most Phoenix residents seem to be managing. But even if the city is more or less successful, this period could be seen as the beginning of major changes — changes that are not for the better.

And for those of you who have stuck with me this long, let’s not forget the curious case of the sun-baked quesadilla. Was he cooking? The answer: In 15 minutes, the cheese melted into clumps, and the flour tortilla was hardened.

“Oll,” said the 12-year-old. “I’ll take a bite,” I replied.

It turns out he was right. We got rid of the quesadilla. Then, as we stood in the Phoenix sun, we did the only sensible thing possible in light of everything around us: We went back inside and resumed packing, and said our goodbyes to this strange, baked city right in front of us.

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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about the AP climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all matters. Follow Peter Prengaman on Twitter at

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