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Phoenix in the Climate Cross Hairs

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Posted on Mar 14, 2013
Kevin Dooley (CC BY 2.0)

By William deBuys, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.

In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?

And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time—New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy—may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures—grids going down, levees failing, back-up systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.

Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so—the aptly named Valley of the Sun.

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In Phoenix, it’s the convergence of heat, drought, and violent winds, interacting and amplifying each other that you worry about. Generally speaking, in contemporary society, nothing that matters happens for just one reason, and in Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention.

If, in summer, the grid there fails on a large scale and for a significant period of time, the fallout will make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look mild. Sure, people will hunt madly for power outlets to charge their cellphones and struggle to keep their milk fresh, but communications and food refrigeration will not top their list of priorities. Phoenix is an air-conditioned city. If the power goes out, people fry.

In the summer of 2003, a heat wave swept Europe and killed 70,000 people. The temperature in London touched 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time since records had been kept, and in portions of France the mercury climbed as high as 104°F. Those temperatures, however, are child’s play in Phoenix, where readings commonly exceed 100°F for more than 100 days a year. In 2011, the city set a new record for days over 110°F: there were 33 of them, more than a month of spectacularly superheated days ushering in a new era.

In Flight From the Sun

It goes without saying that Phoenix’s desert setting is hot by nature, but we’ve made it hotter. The city is a masonry world, with asphalt and concrete everywhere. The hard, heavy materials of its buildings and roads absorb heat efficiently and give it back more slowly than the naked land. In a sense, the whole city is really a thermal battery, soaking up energy by day and releasing it at night. The result is an “urban heat island,” which, in turn, prevents the cool of the desert night from providing much relief.

Sixty years ago, when Phoenix was just embarking on its career of manic growth, nighttime lows never crept above 90°F. Today such temperatures are a commonplace, and the vigil has begun for the first night that doesn’t dip below 100°F. Studies indicate that Phoenix’s urban-heat-island effect may boost nighttime temperatures by as much as 10°F. It’s as though the city has doubled down on climate change, finding a way to magnify its most unwanted effects even before it hits the rest of us full blast.

Predictably, the poor suffer most from the heat.  They live in the hottest neighborhoods with the least greenery to mitigate the heat-island effect, and they possess the least resources for combatting high temperatures.  For most Phoenicians, however, none of this is more than an inconvenience as long as the AC keeps humming and the utility bill gets paid. When the heat intensifies, they learn to scurry from building to car and into the next building, essentially holding their breaths. In those cars, the second thing they touch after the ignition is the fan control for the AC. The steering wheel comes later.

In the blazing brilliance of July and August, you venture out undefended to walk or run only in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The idea for residents of the Valley of the Sun is to learn to dodge the heat, not challenge it.

Heat, however, is a tricky adversary. It stresses everything, including electrical equipment. Transformers, when they get too hot, can fail. Likewise, thermoelectric generating stations, whether fired by coal, gas, or neutrons, become less efficient as the mercury soars.  And the great hydroelectric dams of the Colorado River, including Glen Canyon, which serves greater Phoenix, won’t be able to supply the “peaking power” they do now if the reservoirs behind them are fatally shrunken by drought, as multiple studies forecast they will be. Much of this can be mitigated with upgraded equipment, smart grid technologies, and redundant systems.  But then along comes the haboob.

A haboob is a dust/sand/windstorm, usually caused by the collapse of a thunderstorm cell. The plunging air hits the ground and roils outward, picking up debris across the open desert. As the Arabic name suggests, such storms are native to arid regions, but—although Phoenix is no stranger to storm-driven dust—the term haboob has only lately entered the local lexicon. It seems to have been imported to describe a new class of storms, spectacular in their vehemence, which bring visibility to zero and life to a standstill. They sandblast cars, close the airport, and occasionally cause the lights—and AC—to go out. Not to worry, say the two major utilities serving the Phoenix metroplex, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. And the outages have indeed been brief.  So far.

Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers was similarly reassuring to the people of New Orleans. And until Superstorm Sandy landed, almost no one worried about storm surges filling the subway tunnels of New York.

Every system, like every city, has its vulnerabilities. Climate change, in almost every instance, will worsen them. The beefed-up, juiced-up, greenhouse-gassed, overheated weather of the future will give us haboobs of a sort we can’t yet imagine, packed with ever greater amounts of energy. In all likelihood, the emergence of such storms as a feature of Phoenix life results from an overheating environment, abetted by the loose sand and dust of abandoned farmland (which dried up when water was diverted to the city’s growing subdivisions).


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