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Home » Climate change is supercharging California heat waves, and the state isn’t ready

Climate change is supercharging California heat waves, and the state isn’t ready

Climate change is supercharging California heat waves, and the state isn’t ready

When a major heat wave hits Southern California, it begins with a jab — a ridge of high pressure builds over Nevada or Mexico and sweeps into the region, bringing scorching temperatures along with it.

Then comes the right hook: A mass of humid air created by unusually warm ocean water just off the northern coast of Baja California moves in from the southeast. Combined, they deliver a deadly blow, wreaking havoc on heavily populated regions such as Los Angeles County.

“We understand pretty well how and why they form,” said Glynn Hulley, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has documented a shift toward hotter, more humid heat waves in urban areas of Southern California since 2000. “It’s almost like the heat waves have changed their personality, shifting to warmer and more humid nighttime events.”

Climate change is transforming the character of the West’s hottest periods — making them more frequent, more persistent, more humid and more lethal. Experts say this shift in heat waves should prompt changes in emergency notifications and public health response to keep the death toll from rising. But that isn’t happening.

In California and some other states, key strategies that could protect the most vulnerable and save lives, including urban cooling measures and better warning systems, remain a low priority compared with other environmental hazards such as wildfires. Environmentalists and health advocates see it as a major shortcoming in the state’s efforts to adapt to the warming climate.

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