A Brutal Heat Wave Is About to Scorch Many Parts of the Country for Weeks

Photo credit: Twitter/NOAA
Photo credit: Twitter/NOAA

From Prevention

  • An incoming heat wave, dubbed a “heat dome,” will lead to historic temperatures in various parts of the U.S., particularly in the South.

  • The National Weather Service is warning about “excessive heat” this weekend, noting that “heat indices are likely to be over 110 degrees” in the South and Southwest.

  • The heat will last multiple weeks and raises concern for heat-related illnesses.

As if 2020 hasn’t thrown enough at you, it’s about to get hot—really hot—in many parts of the country. A historic heat wave, dubbed a “heat dome,” is expected to crank up temperatures in the South, Southwest, and Mid-Atlantic over the next few weeks.

The National Weather Service is warning about “excessive heat” this weekend, noting on Twitter that “heat indices are likely to be over 110 degrees” in the South and Southwest. The heat wave is expected to last for several weeks in some areas, according to CBS News, and more than 80% of the country will see temperatures over 90 degrees within the next week.

The National Weather Service in Phoenix, in particular, is warning that there is a “slight chance” temperatures in the area could get as high as 120 degrees. While the heat dome is currently focused on the South and Southwest, it’s expected to spread north and east in the early parts of next week.

A heat dome happens when strong, high-pressure atmospheric conditions trap hot ocean air like a lid or cap, according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). The main cause is usually a strong change in ocean temperatures from west to east in the tropical Pacific Ocean during the winter before.

The NOAA compares it to a swimming pool when the heater is turned on; temperatures rise much faster around the jets while the rest of the water takes longer to heat. Eventually, more warm air—which is heated by the ocean’s surface—rises over the western Pacific and is moved east toward land by the jet stream, where it eventually sinks, leading to a heat wave.

But in general, “a heat wave is the same as a heat dome,” says Jeff Masters, Ph.D., co-founder of Weather Underground and meteorologist for Yale Climate Connections.

But there are a few reasons to pay attention to this heat dome. “The heat wave will be very long-lived, lasting multiple weeks in some areas with only a few days of near-normal temperatures during that span. This will increase the odds of heat illness and heat-related deaths,” Masters explains.

Of course, there’s a pandemic to consider, too. “The heat wave will act to keep people indoors in air conditioning, where the spread of COVID-19 is more likely to occur,” Masters says.

How to prepare for and stay safe during a heat wave

This is serious: The Red Cross warns online that excessive heat “has caused more deaths than all other weather events, including floods.”

“Heat illness, and most notably, heat stroke would be the biggest concern with extreme temperatures,” says Nicholas Kman, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of heat illness include a body temperature of 103°F or higher, hot, red, dry, or damp skin, a fast pulse, dizziness or confusion, nausea or vomiting, passing out, muscle cramps or weakness, and heavy sweating. “Athletes, outdoor laborers, the elderly, children in vehicles, and military personnel are at greatest risk,” Dr. Kman says.

If you’re in an area that’s expected to be impacted by the extreme heat, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recommends adding insulation and weather-stripping to points of entry in your home, covering windows with drapes or shades, using attic fans to clear hot air, and installing window air conditioners or getting plenty of fans if your home doesn’t have a central air system. If the heat wave has already arrived in your area, the Red Cross has this advice:

  • Never leave children or pets alone in closed vehicles.

  • Drink plenty of water, even if you do not feel thirsty. Avoid caffeine or alcohol.

  • Eat small meals and eat more often.

  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight, light-colored clothing.

  • Avoid heavy exercise during the hottest part of the day (normally in the afternoon).

  • Schedule outdoor games and activities for another day.

  • Take breaks as often as you need to if you have to work outdoors.

  • Check on loved ones who do not have air conditioning or spend a lot of time alone.

  • Check on your pets often to make sure they are comfortable.

If you suspect someone you love is dealing with heat stroke, Dr. Kman recommends that you “immediately start cooling them” while calling 911. Get them out of the sun or heat ASAP and into the shade, a cool room indoors, or even a cold bath. “This is a medical emergency,” he says. “The sooner the cooling process starts, the better the outcome for the patient.”

It’s unclear at this point when the heat wave will subside completely, so do your best to stay safe and find relief whenever possible.

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