August 23, 2019
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We can’t end heat waves, but we can take steps to keep them from getting a lot worse

Michel Euler | AP
Michel Euler | AP
People cool off under showers at Paris Plage along the Seine river in Paris, France, Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. Three French cities have banned the most polluting cars from the roads because of pollution linked to the current heat wave in Europe.

As Mainers sweltered through another week of hot, humid weather, many longed for the days of yore when the nights were cool and a 90-degree day was an anomaly. Those days are in the history books, replaced by ones that are, on average, hotter, more stormy and filled with increasing number of vermin, including ticks carrying Lyme disease.

The entire world, not just Maine, is impacted.

The temperature hit 98 in Montreal on July 2, the hottest temperature the Canadian city had ever recorded. As many as 70 people died during the heat wave, health officials said. For the first time, a temperature of 90 degrees was recorded north of the Arctic Circle, in Finland on July 17.

More than 80 people died in wildfires in Greece and more than 50 large fires remain out of control in the western US. Flooding, followed by record high temperatures, left nearly 200 dead in Japan.

While the heat waves and big storms feel unusual, they weren’t unpredictable. Climate scientists have warned for years that human activity was releasing ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases that trap heat and contribute to the planet’s warming. Without reductions in emissions, things will get worse. For example, scientists predict 24 days with temperatures over 100 degrees in Boston in 2070.

“The old records belong to a world that no longer exists,” Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recently told The Washington Post.

Maine, like many other places, is firmly ensconced in a new world. Of the 10 warmest years on record in Portland, half of them are since 2010. In Caribou, half of the warmest years have been since 2000.

The most significant increase in Maine has been in overnight temperatures, especially in the summer and fall. This is because of melting sea ice in the Arctic, explains state climatologist Sean Birkel, who is also a research professor at the Climate Change Center at the University of Maine. Since the 1980s, the amount of sea ice in the Arctic has dropped by half. Less ice means more open water, which translates to more moisture in the air. Wetter air holds the heat more than colder air.

While we tend to notice the summer heat, the biggest average temperature increases in Maine have been in the fall, says Birkel.

As a result of warmer temperatures, ticks are not dying during the winter in Maine like they used to. Deer ticks can carry Lyme Disease, a bacterial infection that can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including joint aches, fatigue, facial palsy and neck stiffness.

The disease is now found in all 50 states, with the highest number of cases in Pennsylvania. The incidence of the disease has grown 10-fold in Maine since 2001 and Maine now has the highest rate per 100,000 residents of any state in the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All of this points to the need for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is one of the biggest sources of these emissions in the US. Individually, we can drive less and switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

On a bigger scale, we need lawmakers who understand climate change and work to enact laws to reduce carbon emissions. In the Trump administration, we have the opposite. The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation, for example, are working to roll back fuel economy standards, which would worsen carbon emissions and pollution. Rules to lower emissions from power plants were repealed by the EPA.

These are steps backward in combating climate change, with is becoming increasingly real for people around the globe.

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