Amber Sullins is Chief Meteorologist for ABC15 News in Phoenix, Arizona.

Sustainability in Extreme Desert Heat: Is Our Time Here Running Out?

  • Sep 24, 2015

As I gaze out over the beautiful desert landscape of my hometown of Phoenix, a part of me is filled with awe and wonder. The other part weighs deep with worry.

I worry for our future. I worry about this way of life. I worry because of climate change.

Anyone who has been to Phoenix knows it's hot. Crazy hot. I'm talking the kind of heat that bakes your skin within minutes of stepping outside in the summer. The kind of heat that can only be mocked in memes comparing it to hell.

Meme of Phoenix, Arizona heat
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On average over the last 20 years, Phoenix sizzled under 20 days a year at 110 or more. According to Climate Central, that number could jump to 47 days by 2060 due to climate change. That’s a month and a half of hellacious heat!

Even after we hit those scorching highs and the sun sets, lows are often in the 90s due in part to the massive concrete urban heat island we've created here.

In fact, Phoenix’s record warm low was a baking 96 degrees back on July 15, 2003.

With lows like that, energy demand never ends in the summer.

During our latest stretch of 110°-plus days, Phoenix set two back-to-back all-time energy demand records. Salt River Project delivered a staggering 6,781 megawatts of energy to its customers on August 14 and then topped it the very next day with a 6,806 megawatt distribution.  (And that’s just one of the power companies that serve the Phoenix area.)

SRP all-time system peak record
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Fall is now here and our yearly round of mind-frying heat is behind us. The latest we’ve ever felt 110-plus heat was September 19, back in 2010. But, in an ever warming world, we could be facing heat like that well into October in the decades to come.

So the question is, how can a place like this survive as one of the largest cities in the nation as climate change takes over?

Let’s just assume, for arguments sake, we figure out the energy piece of the puzzle. We all just stay inside our nice, air-conditioned homes and offices for much of the year, not worrying too much about the sweltering heat.

Then, what about water? What about drought? What do we do if the Colorado River supply chain is significantly reduced, or worse, dries up?

It’s not a crazy notion. In fact, the drought just west of us in California has already led to significant water restrictions and cost billions of dollars in agricultural loss, not to mention the tens of thousands of jobs lost. (That’s according to a recent report by agricultural economists at the University of California, Davis.)

Parched earth

So what can we do about it?

First and foremost, we need to ditch the easy, selfish thinking that only the present matters; the mindset of, “well, climate change is not going to affect my life.” It is and it already has whether you realize or not.

Secondly, we need hold our leaders accountable. We need to make sure the people we are electing are educated on climate change and not brainwashed with junk science. It’s our responsibility and moral imperative to do everything we can to take action and help prevent this problem from getting worse.

I echo the words of Pope Francis after he arrived for his visit to the U.S.: "When it comes to the care of our 'common home,' we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change."

I’m thankful for world leaders that are acknowledging that climate change is real. I’m hopeful that they will continue to encourage others to be good stewards of this precious planet and if necessary help change policies to ensure its sustainability.