Only 7 Counties in America Had an Uneventful Summer
This summer was hot. It was wet. It was deadly. For most of us, it was a preview of the rest of our lives.
So here we are: Another summer in the books.
After Labor Day, whites go back in the closet; kids go back to school. Astronomically speaking, there are still technically 20 days left of summer, and climatologically speaking, we may have even longer to go than that — summers are getting longer as autumns contract. But culturally, anyway, we’re now headed into fall, an incongruous transition epitomized by the bastardized existence of the iced pumpkin spice latte. You know you’re living in the age of climate change when ...
It’s a good time, though, for taking stock. An astonishing 96% of Americans have faced at least one extreme weather alert from the National Weather Service since May 1, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Danger Season tracker reports. Further, only seven counties out of 3,224 in the whole country and its territories had no heat, flood, fire, or storm warnings between May 1 and August 29 of this year, according to additional numbers supplied to Heatmap by the UCS — including, surprisingly, San Fransisco County in California, home of what has been called the single-most economically vulnerable major city to climate change in the U.S.
These were the others that dodged extreme weather alerts: Aleutians East Borough (Alaska); Aleutians West Census Area (Alaska); Ketchikan Gateway Borough (Alaska); Kodiak Island Borough (Alaska); and Norton City (Virginia). Together, they have a population of around 39,500 — just a fraction of San Francisco County’s 815,200.
But while San Francisco, some islands and bays in remote regions of Alaska, and a sliver of Virginia got lucky (this time and so far), it was a bad summer to be in Arizona, where there were more NWS extreme weather alerts issued than in any other state. Coconino County, home of the capital of Flagstaff, saw 146 alerts this summer due to a parade of heat, flood, and fire threats, followed closely by Mohave County, in the state’s northwesternmost corner, with a total of 145. New Mexico was right on Arizona’s tail with five counties in the top 10:
When it came to heat alerts specifically, Texas and Puerto Rico dominated the top of the list. In fact, Louisiana’s Sabine Parish was the highest-ranked non-Texan or Puerto Rican county for heat alerts, clocking in way down at #96.
The most flood alerts were experienced by California’s Inyo County, the home of Death Valley, which might be surprising until you remember how little rain it takes to trigger a disaster in the desert. Washington’s Yakima, Kittitas, and Skamania counties lead the list for fire weather alerts; and South Carolina’s Georgetown, Colleton, and Charleston counties lead for storm alerts. (The data was collected just before the brunt of Hurricane Idalia swept through northern Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas). California’s Los Angeles County, the most populous in the country, faced a total of 80 extreme weather alerts this summer; the average for all counties was around 44.
The UCS Danger Season data (which will continue to be collected here through October) did not account for air quality warnings, which were the main story of the early summer in the U.S. — at times, more than a third of Americans faced degraded AQI due to smoke billowing south from the Canadian wildfires (which are themselves record-breaking). June 7 was the worst day for wildfire smoke exposure in American history “by far,” my colleague Robinson Meyer reported, and it happened not on the West Coast, where fires are routine, but in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Toronto.
The next month, July, was the hottest month on Earth in probably 120,000 years (so you have that bragging right on about 4,000 or so generations of your ancestors). Some 40,000 different locations around the world recorded their hottest days ever in 2023, with nearly 20,000 of those in the United States, according to NOAA’s records. Though we didn’t break the global heat record this year (Death Valley only reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit, short of the 130 it needed to beat), the planet recorded its warmest day ever a few different times. Meanwhile, Vermont saw catastrophic summer flooding.
Then, in August, a grass fire fueled by hurricane winds ripped through Maui. Even three weeks later, we still don’t know how many people were killed. Undoubtedly, though, it is the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history — and all the more shocking for the fact that it burned through a former wetland, a grim testament to the effects of colonialism. America might not be through reckoning with massive fires, either; the peak of fire season is known as “Snaptember” among hot shot crews for a reason.
And summer wasn’t through with us yet. Hilary became the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years, and while the damage wasn’t too bad, the Los Angeles Times credits the urgency of the early warnings for saving lives. Subsequently, Hurricane Idalia became the first hurricane to make U.S. landfall in what is predicted to be an “above normal” season, strengthening from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm in 24 hours thanks to record-warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Reports of the damage are still trickling in, but it can’t be good news for insurers in Florida and the Southeast.
It is difficult to tie any one weather-related disaster to climate change, but as Michael Wehner, a senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, once succinctly put it to Mother Jones: “It’s not: Climate change flooded my house. It’s: Climate change changed the chances of flooding my house.” So, let’s look at the chances.
A recent study found that the prime wildfire conditions in Canada this year, which caused the choking smoke on the East Coast, were “at least twice as likely to occur there as they would be in a world that humans hadn’t warmed by burning fossil fuels,” The New York Times reports. The July heat dome that baked the South was “at least five times more likely due to human-caused climate change,” an analysis by Climate Central and The Guardian found. The odds of Vermont’s supposedly once-a-century flooding happening within 12 years of another 100-year storm in the state, Hurricane Irene, was just 0.6 percent. The fires in Maui were caused by compounding climate problems, The Washington Post reports, such as higher average temperatures and more intense hurricanes — both of which also have links to emissions-fueled warming. And Hurricane Idalia’s rapid intensification is what we’d expect to see from human-fueled ocean warming, too. Then there’s El Niño, which plays a part in all this chaos as well; it’s why scientists expect next year to be an even bumpier ride for earthly life than this summer has been.
That might not be very heartening to hear but consider this: If you’re a resident of anywhere other than San Francisco and a few odd places like Alaska’s Bristol Bay Borough (population: 838), then this summer was your dry run. You’ve learned more than you ever expected you’d need to know about indoor air purification; you spent 90 minutes prepping for wildfire season; you’ve checked in on elderly neighbors; you’ve even brushed up on your gin rummy skills so you can stay off your phone when the power goes out during the next (or same?!) hurricane. Look at you go. You’re adaptable. Heck, even iced pumpkin spice lattes are starting to grow on you now.