Blistering heat spreads to US Midwest as wildfire smoke lingers
People on a streetcar in Kansas City, Mo., where the city is offering its streetcars, buses and many of its libraries to residents needing shelter from the heat, July 25, 2023.
By JULIE BOSMAN
The heat wave that has scorched much of the American South and Southwest is now spreading throughout the Midwest, bringing temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, dangerous conditions for millions of people and pleas from state and local officials to avoid the outdoors.
The extreme heat and humidity will spread misery across the region, particularly on Wednesday, meteorologists said, while warning that the intense heat and humidity could linger for days. In cities like St. Louis, Kansas City and Wichita, Kansas, temperatures could be 10 to 20 degrees above normal, and heat index readings, which consider both temperature and humidity, will reach into the 100s.
The blistering weather arrived just as another health menace swept in: Canadian wildfire smoke that has once again settled over parts of the Midwest.
In Chicago on Tuesday, the Air Quality Index reached 187 — a level considered unhealthy for sensitive groups — leaving the skies over Lake Michigan hazy and prompting some people to return to wearing masks as they walked dogs and ran errands.
In Detroit, public health authorities encouraged residents to come to libraries and recreation centers to avoid the double whammy of high heat and unhealthy air quality.
Experiencing both skyrocketing heat and humidity alongside smoky air from wildfires is not something that people in the middle of the United States are accustomed to, said Christina Floyd, the acting chief public health officer in Detroit.
“That’s not normal in this region,” Floyd said. “The norm in the summer is high heat and humidity. But when you add that particulate air matter, that’s the unique situation. Most people are just not equipped to be in that kind of environment.”
The planet has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century and will continue to grow hotter until humans essentially stop burning oil, gas and coal, scientists say. The warmer temperatures contribute to extreme-weather events and help make periods of extreme heat more frequent, longer and more intense.
In Detroit, Floyd said that she was especially concerned about older people and children with asthma, high blood pressure, or any respiratory condition.
The heat wave hit especially hard in parts of Kansas and Missouri, where temperatures were expected to reach 100 degrees on Wednesday.
Capt. Ray Mattas, a spokesperson for the Emporia Police Department in eastern Kansas, said that the lobby of the department was open to anyone who needed a place to cool off for an hour or two. Pets were welcome, too, he said.
In Emporia on Tuesday, the air felt as though it was 104 degrees, according to the heat index, he said.
“You walk out of the air-conditioned building and — you ever open an oven door really fast?” he said. “That’s what it feels like.”
Throughout the heat wave, police officers in Emporia were being given breaks to hydrate if they were working outdoors for long periods of time, such as at the scene of a car crash, where heat radiates painfully off the pavement.
Little relief was expected in parts of Kansas even in the middle of the night this week, officials said, with low temperatures remaining in the 80s.
“It can be a pretty serious deal,” said Brandon Drake, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Topeka, Kansas. “The stress on your body builds up if you’re never getting away from the heat, if you don’t have air-conditioning. Then you’re still hot even during the overnight period.”
Forecasters said that the high heat and humidity would continue throughout the week but very likely shift to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region by the weekend. Temperatures could reach into the upper 90s on the East Coast on Friday.
In some Midwestern states, even the height of the corn crop can exacerbate the discomfort for residents, since tall, mature plants of late July release excess moisture into the air in a process called evapotranspiration — or more colloquially, corn sweat.
In Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, residents were encouraged to visit public pools and splash pads throughout the city, or one of the eight beaches along Lake Michigan.
Cook County, Illinois, with more than 5 million residents, announced the opening of additional cooling centers beginning on Wednesday, when heat indexes were expected to rise to 105 degrees. Camps and activities across the state were forced to move indoors: In Lisle, a suburb of Chicago, a softball camp was relocated to a gym because of the poor air quality.
The conditions posed a threat to livestock and pets as well. During a heat wave last summer, thousands of cattle in Kansas died from exposure to high temperatures, resulting in gruesome scenes of carcasses lined up along the edges of fields.
A.J. Tarpoff, a veterinarian and associate professor at Kansas State University, said that farmers were far better prepared to face heat-related threats this summer. They even have a new tool that researchers designed to help them monitor animal comfort, using weather forecasts and other data.
For weeks, they have been ready with strategies to help animals survive the heat, such as using larger water tanks and moving animals into a different location when necessary. It also helps, Tarpoff said, to feed cattle in the slightly cooler evenings, since they produce heat when they digest food.
“Last year was a very specific event that was the worst-case scenario,” he said. “That is not unfolding this year.”