Before nine o’clock in the morning the temperature had risen to 82 degrees, dew point was 77 degrees, and humidity was 97 percent This day in the last week of July was heating up to surpass a 103-degree heat index.
The heat index. It has been around since early in the 20th century when it was more commonly known as the Temperature Humidity Index (THI). In the late 1970s or early 1980s it was formalized as a component of weather reporting by the National Weather Service which defined and charted it as “The heat index, also known as the apparent temperature, is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature. This has important considerations for the human body’s comfort.”
And for human and animal existence.
On the hottest morning in July my bird dog Abbey and I were late starting our daily walk around the perimeter of the hayfield. We fed and watered the sheep, dawdled a bit by the gate to count noses, checked to see that all the lambs and ewes were spry and active, and then rolled in some fresh manure. Well, I refrained from the manure-roll, but Abbey apparently likes to take home some remembrance of her visit with the sheep.
When we set out to do chores, it was already hot and muggy. Too hot for a mile-long walk. But the organic farmer who hays our field had round-baled it the day before, and I was curious to count the number of bales. I think I counted 38 by the end of the hike, but I was a little loopy with the heat so I cannot be sure.
A half hour later we were stopping to rest in every patch of shade along the route. Even in the shade, it was broiling hot.
This does not bode well for the month of August, the dog days of summer, when daily temperatures and humidity have usually risen to their peak in the North County. For the South Country, where friends of ours live in Texas and Alabama and Florida, the outlook is much worse in this Anthropocene era of climate change and global warming
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published an article by an international group of climate scientists, ecologists, and archaeologists that forecasts dire summer weather conditions for the southland. By the year 2070, that study predicts, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rate human life my no longer be sustainable in a broad swath around the world.
The average high temperature in August in Houston, Texas, is 94.5 degrees F (34.7 degrees C). The average relative humidity is 90 percent in the morning and upwards of 60 percent in the afternoon. Because land masses are heating up even faster than oceans, the study suggests Houston’s afternoon high temperatures could rise by 7.5 degrees C (up to 42.4 degrees C, 108 degrees F). That translates to a heat index of more than 150 degrees F on a typical afternoon.
Humans, and the domestic plants and animals that support them, cannot live in those climate conditions. Rising sea levels and the severe weather patterns (hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, droughts, wildfires) that are almost certain to accompany these drastic increases in global temperatures will exacerbate unlivable conditions.
A casual walk around our hayfield threatened heat exhaustion when the heat index was 103. How could anyone work outside, how could domestic livestock survive, with a heat index of more than 150?
Perhaps it is not my concern. Fifty years in the future I will not be around to witness this catastrophe, but my grandchildren almost certainly will be, and their future could be bleak, even in the North Country. An estimated 95 million Americans, 30 percent of the U.S population, live on the Gulf Coast, and as that region of the country becomes uninhabitable there will be a steady migration to other areas with all the economic, political, and social disasters implicit in that mass movement.
There has not been a change in climate this radical, or this rapid, in more than 6,000 years. In 4000 BCE, the world population is estimated to have been 7 million. In the 21st century the world population estimate is almost 8 billion, more than 1,000 times higher. The number of people displaced, according to the study, could exceed 3 billion worldwide, a forced migration that would be cruel, brutal, ruthless, and violently chaotic.
Our morning walk that brought us to the brink of heat exhaustion may someday be regarded as “a bit warm.” I, for one, could not long live when any type of exertion in the outdoors brought me to the point of collapse. If the prognostications of the scientific climate study prove true, neither will some 3 to 4 billion other humans.
More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page