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Is This the End of Summer Vacation?

Who wants to go to the beach when the water feels like a hot tub?

National Lampoon's Vacation in flames.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

There was room at the inn — just no way to get there.

A week before my trip to Vermont this month for a friend’s wedding, torrents flooded the Green Mountain State to a degree unseen since Hurricane Irene in 2011. As Vermonters endured and began to recover from the latest deluge, I refreshed the map of New England road closures, wondering when the only route to our hotel would open and when I might need to cut bait and secure alternative lodging.

The waters receded; the roadways opened. My family flew into Boston — this despite more intense storms causing airspace backups that led our flight to make an unexpected stop in Cincinnati (and led to many people sleeping on cots at baggage claim in Beantown). And we managed to navigate waterlogged New England in a rented Toyota Corolla, despite a few misgivings that I should’ve upgraded to an SUV before heading into the breach.

The trip turned into one of those summer vacations everyone has gone through, the one that nearly falls apart at multiple turns. Still, this experience was not an aberration or an accumulation of near misses, but a glimpse of summer vacations to come, when air or car travel is uncertain and the weather is so extreme that visitors can visit the Acropolis of Athens only in the morning and a swim at the beach feels like a dip in a hot tub.

Summer’s apologists have solidified its status as the season for travel and leisure. With kids out of school and no snow to be found, it has become a cultural imperative to take a road trip while blasting the “song of the summer” or lay out on the sand with one of the tomes vying to be this year’s top beach read. In a climate changed world, though, summer is swiftly being rebranded as a time of compounding calamity. The wildfire smoke that smothered the East Coast and Midwest this season will strike the West as its dry season rolls on. The climate in wetter places is trending toward more powerful storms with heavier rainfall totals. Summer in this century is fire and flood.

These two trend lines do not mix. Travel plans, especially with a family in tow, require weeks or months of preparation — only to be thrown into disarray by a summertime disaster that arrives in moments. Even the heightened risk of disaster dissuades the would-be wanderer. My family on multiple occasions delayed a summer road trip to far northern California and Oregon because so many huge wildfires filled the map of the region each year. When we reached Lassen Volcanic National Park last summer, a section near the entrance was a charred firescape.

It’s more than formerly once-in-a-generation events that have made summer vacation a nightmare. The ocean is boiling, and as the world suffers through heat wave after heat wave — adding up to the hottest year on record — it is, quite simply, unpleasant to be outside. As The Atlantic reports, it’s not clear exactly how hot is too hot for kids to enjoy the typical lineup of outdoor, summer camp activities, but the world is about to find out.

Summer travel will only get harder: Sizzling temperatures in the Southwest have led to a rash of broken-down cars that couldn’t stand the heat. Electric vehicles may do better, but their electricity demand as more people drive EVs could strain an electric grid already burdened by so many people running air conditioners to survive. It’s not clear what could replace carbon-spewing jet fuel to power the planes that fly us to our vanishing serenity. Given the increased risk of climate events with the potential to disrupt flights or highways, travelers will need a Plan B or C for how to spend summer vacation.

Many summer travel destinations, the very places we go to either escape the heat or bask in it, are vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Islands, beaches, and waterfront districts will be the first affected by rising seas and storm surges, for example. Climate havens, the locales thought to be most insulated from the effects of climate change, tend to be locations like Western Pennsylvania and Vermont — not the first places that bring to mind frozen cocktails with little umbrellas in them. And as this year has shown, those places may not be so insulated after all.

It’s enough to ask: Should we give up on the summer vacation fantasy? The question is not to be considered lightly. Even ignoring the logistical nightmare of, say, moving the off-season for schools from summer to spring or autumn (or getting rid of it entirely), there is a rhythm to the calendar that drives the culture. We have our periods of supposed productivity in spring and fall balanced by the holiday season in winter and vacation season in summer. Although our lives don’t always reflect this strict definition, the idea of the seasons broadly defines the passage of the American year. June is for weddings, Halloween is for hayrides, and Christmas is for sledding and Hallmark movies about falling in love during a snowstorm — even if today’s world bears increasingly little resemblance to the climate of yesteryear that gave rise to those traditions.

Perhaps we should collectively move vacation season to fall and spring, and stay inside our temperature-controlled offices and schools during the blazing afternoons of July and August. But just as there is nowhere on Earth to hide from climate change, there is nowhere on the calendar, either. Winter travel activities are threatened by climate change, too. Our longer, hotter summers bleed over into the months that used to be reliably temperate.

Vacation travel is like the rest of life, then. We’re going to have to rethink our expectations rather than trying to force the rhythms of the past onto a changed planet.

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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