The 5+ Effects of Oppressive Heat Waves

This year has seen record breaking temperatures across the globe. What is at risk in this increased heat?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #293

A heat wave is an extended period of intense heat, often caused by hot air trapped in place by high pressure systems. Last week saw record breaking temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere and cities like Chicago, Paris, and New Delhi have seen historic heat waves in the last decade. Climate change will bring with it not just hotter summers but also more intense and more frequent heat waves. What is at risk in this increased heat?

The Effects of a Heat Wave

  1. Infrastructure fails.
  2. Planes can’t take off.
  3. Asphalt can burn you (and your pet).
  4. Our bodies suffer serious health risks.
  5. Our crops suffer.

Let's explore each a little further. 

1. Infrastructure fails.

Materials like steel can start to expand above certain temperatures. In 2018, a steel bridge in Chicago had to be hosed down with cold water because it could no longer open for boats to travel underneath. The joints had expanded due to prolonged exposure to temperatures over 100 degrees and became stuck in place. In 2012, rail lines deformed by heat in Illinois caused a freight train to derail and cause the collapse of an overpass. In the Arizona heat wave of 2017, locals posted photographs of everyday items they claimed were affected by the extreme heat including paint melting off of street signs and holes melted into the sides of trash bins.

2. Planes can’t take off.

In 2017, temperatures reached 119 degrees F in cities like Phoenix, Arizona, where flights then had to be cancelled. In higher temperatures, planes need to be going faster in order to get off the ground. So longer runways are needed to be sure a plane has sufficient time to reach the necessary ground speed. Certain flights, given the specific airport and the aircraft, thus have maximum approved temperatures, above which the safety of the flight cannot be assured. For many flights out of Phoenix, that maximum temperature is 118 degrees.

In 2012 in Washington, D.C., when temperatures reached 100 degrees, a plane’s wheels sunk into the exceedingly hot tarmac and became stuck, delaying the flight for several hours.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.