What's Up With The Scorching Heat Wave In The Southwest?

Photo: Getty Images.
Scorching temperatures in parts of Arizona, California, and Nevada are breaking daily records and causing serious problems for airlines. In fact, American Airlines cancelled dozens of flights out of Phoenix, AZ the past few days due to staggeringly high temperatures (Phoenix reached 119 degrees on Tuesday).
The city, along with Las Vegas and the ominously named Death Valley of California, is expected to reach temperatures above 110 degrees for the next week.

What's causing the high temps?

Heat waves are caused by high atmospheric pressure, which means air is being pulled down to Earth. As it gets closer to the ground, it rises in temperature because it's being compressed. And as high atmospheric pressure stays in the same area for a while, the air continues to get hotter and drier.

Why is the heat so dangerous?

Blistering temperatures aren't just uncomfortable — they lead to more fires, power outages, and infrastructure failures. Large cracks formed in a highway in Sacramento, CA this week, and the department of transportation said the rising temperature could have been the cause.
Heat has caused more deaths in the U.S. in the last 30 years than floods, tornadoes, or any other type of weather. If you live in the area, it's important to stay in air-conditioned spaces as much as possible, drink lots of water, and avoid sitting in hot cars or cooking on the stove or oven.

Why can't planes fly during heat waves?

The weather in Phoenix mostly affected small planes, as bigger aircrafts can fly in slightly higher temperatures. Air density decreases as temperatures increase, and planes need air density to lift them into the air. In order to get in the air in extreme heat, planes need longer runways to allow them to go faster before taking off.

Why does all this matter?

A study published in Nature Climate Change on Monday says climate change will lead to deadly heat waves becoming more frequent and affecting more parts of the globe, so the Southwest's current problem isn't an isolated event. Earlier this month, the second heat wave of the season hit New England, with temperatures in the 90s.
Airlines grounding planes in Phoenix offer a glimpse at the struggles air travel could face as climate change continues to alter weather patterns.

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