They struck off down the trails, feeling the heat but unaware it would kill them.
It was June 19, Tucson’s hottest day in decades, which is saying something. It hit 115 that afternoon. Most of us locals, it’s fair to say, were spending the Sunday on sofas and other resting places, taking in some TV or a book, cranking the swamp cooler or AC.
The German travelers chose to hike. So did the young woman who recently moved here from Washington. Another woman, visiting from Alabama, hit the less strenuous but still dangerous Loop trail. Those four died on that one exceptionally hot day.
In retrospect, it’s easy to say the hikers’ judgment lacked. It did. And I think we should do more to warn out-of-state travelers at trailheads. But my colleague Tony Davis’ story Sunday about our broiling climatic future made me wonder, who are we to judge?
In a sense, we who live in Tucson and the Southwest are all hikers striking off on that baking trail, innocent of the threats that await us.
A new study projects that, if current emissions trends continue, the mean temperatures for parts of the Southwest will increase by eight or nine degrees in the period 2060-2080. A high of 110 degrees, rather than representing a hot early-July day, would become typical.
Last month’s killing temperature of 115, by that standard, would just be a little hotter than usual.
This presents a challenge to the Tucsonans of today and the future, one that few of us are seriously confronting. Relatively few of us harvest rainwater, few of us know who our vulnerable neighbors are, few produce our own power or food, relatively few simply have an emergency plan.
Yes, there are preppers, whom I’ve written about before. Some have a broader community spirit, including the local preppers’ Meet Up group, but others are lone operators who envision armed conflict when disaster strikes and plan to “bug out” to remote hideaways.
A relative handful of people are grappling with the issue of how to survive in the hotter, drier Arizona of the future as a social problem with practical solutions. They can serve as guides down that broiling path and help us survive the hike.
One of them, Barbara Warren, views the problem from a small scale — that of the neighborhood. Her major concern is that an extreme heat wave will arrive and the electricity will go out for a long time, even weeks. People will need to take care of themselves and the vulnerable nearby. In a city, that would be in the neighborhood.
Warren is the Arizona director of a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has been working on a project called Climate Smart Southwest since 2012. The idea is to build “resiliency,” a growing buzzword, at the community level.
When we spoke last week, she cited the 700-plus deaths that occurred in the Chicago heat wave of 1995 — a common reference point for people worried about our hotter future.
“Deaths occur in communities where there is a lack of social cohesion and a lack of preparedness due to lack of social cohesion,” she told me. “What we would expect is that people have gotten to know their neighbors, as many as possible, and gotten to know who is the most vulnerable.”
Her group has developed a three-hour training that it takes to neighborhoods, preparing residents to respond resiliently and helpfully in case of disaster — especially extreme heat and power outages. Warren herself got a short test-run last week when the storm that slammed midtown knocked out her power.
“I was somewhat prepared to deal with it,” she said. “I had a battery-operated fan. I had a battery-operated fluorescent lamp. I had flashlights handy. I had water and drank extra water. Those are some simple things that you think about.”
Another of our local guides to the overheated future is Kathy Jacobs, a professor of soil, water and environmental science who runs the UA’s Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.
The fact that such a center exists here is in itself good news. Its members are doing research as wide-ranging as creating more accurate forecasts for Arizona vineyards, monitoring drought on Hopi lands and increasing preparedness for extreme heat in border cities. They have also helped plan Tucson’s responses.
“Climate adaptation is very present and obvious in some states: Washington, Oregon, California and much of the East Coast, especially the northern states and Florida,” Jacobs said. “It’s very highly linked to politics and experience of extreme events.”
In Arizona, we’re so-so, she said. On water, Jacobs’ area of greatest expertise, the state has a sophisticated system of supply but not a very sophisticated long-range view of the risks and need for improved adaptation, she said.
And among the state’s people, “There’s just a lot of vulnerability,” she said. “For people who have cars and air conditioners and access to media and information, they’re much less vulnerable than people who don’t have these things.”
But, she added, “Everybody will have much more vulnerability than they have today.”
Other officials are aware of the risks — in the utilities and local government. They’re planning for it in ways both direct and indirect. Even tree-planting in areas that don’t have much cover is a simple but potentially important way to keep the city cooler in the long run.
But it would be unwise to assume we’ll be taken care of. Too many experiences have shown otherwise, from Chicago in 1995 to New Jersey after Hurricane Irene in 2011.
That would be like starting a long hike on an 80-degree morning, ignorant of the blazing afternoon ahead.