In Cantua, a small town deep in the heart of California’s farmland, the heat had always been a part of life. “We can do nothing about it,” said Julia Mendoza, who has lived in the city for 27 years. But recently, she says, the burning temperatures are almost unbearable.
At noon Thursday, the first day of a prolonged, extreme heat wave in California̵
“Look, the heat!Gasped Mendoza as she hurried over from her porch. Arcelia Luna, her friend and neighbor shook her head as she poured a bottle of chilled water over the head and body of the two-year-old boy she was watching.
Much of California is suffering from record temperatures, just two weeks after a deadly heat dome swept the Pacific Northwest. Across the West, 28 million Americans will have exhibited triple-digit heat this week. While coastal regions, including the Bay Area, will have been spared from cool ocean air, California’s Central Valley – the state’s vibrant, agrarian-minded – will have broiled.
The National Weather Service issued an “excessive heat warning” for the Central Valley from Thursday to Monday. And in the middle of the morning on Thursday, asphalt- and concrete-coated Fresno began to sparkle with heat. There was no breeze to rattle the rows and rows of almonds and pistachio trees that radiated for miles and miles out of town. Occasional irrigation canal fused in the heat mirror radiating off country roads.
Global warming is driving stronger, longer heat waves in the region, said Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida, climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Researchers have been warning about such extreme heat waves for decades, he said, but the heat of tension that California and the western United States have been alarming, he said. Temperature records are broken earlier than expected or predicted.
“We are breaking temperature records this summer. And will continue to break temperature records as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels, ”said Ortiz, who lives in the valley. “It’s outrageous, it’s tiring, and it’s emotionally drained to watch.”
The vicious circle of the climate crisis is fused with a vicious circle of inequality in the region. Racial differences in access to shade and air conditioning are becoming increasingly dangerous, even deadly.
Here, changing weather patterns have not only created periods of extreme heat, but also an extended drought – two phenomena that feed into each other. The heat has caused water reserves to evaporate too quickly, drying out the reservoirs that feed the region’s $ 50 billion agricultural industry. With almost no moisture left in the soil, the dried-up landscape heats up like a hot plate and intensifies the burning ambient temperatures.
In hot weeks like this, Mendoza and a group of other women living in the area gather on her porch, sitting in a circle on folding chairs under a nylon tent. The group has struggled to build an air-conditioned community center or a small park with trees where people can walk to stay cool during what has become more and more frequent bouts of extreme heat.
In Cantua Creek and throughout the valley, overpumping of groundwater has led to a concentration of nitrates from pesticides, fertilizers and milk waste runoff from farms and naturally occurring arsenic. Mendoza and her neighbors are unable to drink the water from the taps, so trucks transport jugs of drinking water to them every day. “We do not want anything big, you know,” Mendoza said. “Just a place to cool off. And clean water.
“On days like this,” she added, “I just want to be able to shower in peace.”
Warmer, drier conditions also mean harder and less work for the region’s hundreds of thousands of farm workers. This week, Jesús Zúñiga has been up at. 3 to get to the fields at. “I choose tomatoes – which is one of the hardest jobs out here,” he said, showing the thick calluses that have developed on his hands. For hours every day, the harsh valley sun carries down on its back as it curls over the tomato vines. Once he has collected 50 pounds of fruit, he sprints down over the neat, watered rows to dump buckets full of the fruit on trucks. His harvest ends in grocery stores as well as fast food restaurant chains.
On several days this week, the temperatures reached dangerous heights at 10 o’clock. “So on these hot days we are only able to work five or six hours before we start to get sick,” he said. “But then we only get paid for five or six hours.” At $ 14 an hour, that’s not enough to pay his rent and sky-high electricity bills or to support his family of five.
“At the end of the shift, we are wet. Everything is wet with sweat. “Sometimes my head starts to hurt and I get dizzy,” he said. “That is, when I begin to be in doubt, so many doubts: why are we here at all?”
Agricultural workers die of heat about 20 times the national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But when the climate crisis triggers longer, warmer heat waves, the risk to agricultural workers will increase, says Michelle Tigchelaar, a researcher at Stanford University. Based on climate models projecting a global temperature rise of 2F (1C) by 2050, Tigchelaar discovered that farm workers currently working through an average of 21 dangerously hot days a year will see the number nearly double over the next few decades.
In some parts of the Central Valley, the heat index will, for most of the summer, surpass what even healthy, young and well-hydrated workers could safely handle, according to the study published last year. “These are the hidden costs of keeping our supermarkets and stores well-stocked,” she said.
In Fresno, the wide sidewalks were eerily empty in the late afternoon. The 500,000 people living here were all withdrawn to air-conditioned homes, shopping malls, or public libraries. At the regional medical center in the center of Fresno, Dr. René Ramirez that he had already seen a couple of patients coping with severe sunburn, heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses in the emergency department that day. Many of his patients do not have insurance, and many suffer from underlying health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and, in a region with some of the worst air pollution in the country, asthma. All of these conditions make it harder for people to cope with extreme heat, even those acclimatized to high temperatures.
“From my perspective, everyone should have the right to refrigeration, whether at home or in community centers,” he said. “I think it’s something that is an inherent right.”
Nora Madden, 65, who has lived in her car or stayed in motels for the past year, said her usual strategy for surviving heat waves is to buy a bag of ice cream from the dollar store in the morning, store it in her ice box and chew the dice all day.
But by Thursday afternoon, it had gotten too hot to sit in her car, so she went to a refrigerator downtown. The city opens these centers when the temperature is expected to reach 105F (41C) or higher. “But what about when it’s 103F or 100F?” Said Madden. The sharp, non-shady rows of concrete that make up some of Freno’s poorest neighborhoods are forgiving hot islands. “Shall we die at 103?” she said.