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What's driving the record-breaking heat wave hitting the U.S.?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Roughly 1 in 3 Americans is living under an extreme heat advisory or warning today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A heat dome is responsible for consecutive days of record triple-digit temps...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Red-alert warnings, meaning there's a threat to life, have been issued for 10 cities, including Florence...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Have you ever seen the weather maps look orange and red and yellow and purple and magenta? There you go. I've never seen anything like that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It just really does feel like an air blow dryer just going back in your face.

DETROW: It's not just the U.S. Life-threatening temperatures are hitting around the globe. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hospitalized today for dehydration. It's also not just the heat. Recent extreme weather includes devastating flooding in New England, which we'll hear about in a few minutes. First, though, we're going to focus on the high temperatures. And to do that, we're joined by Nathan Rott from NPR's climate desk. Hey, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, good afternoon.

DETROW: Let's start with these searing temperatures. Where are we talking about here?

ROTT: So, Scott, if you threw a dart at the top half of the globe, you'd likely hit a spot. I'm kind of joking, but sadly, not by a whole lot. You know, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, much of Europe is under extreme heat advisories. Temperatures were so hot yesterday in Greece that they actually closed access to the Acropolis to try to protect visitors. Excessive heat is either happening or expected across northern Africa, the Middle East. Parts of China are experiencing an extended heat wave. And then, of course, there's the heat that's broiling California, the American Southwest and the southeastern part of the U.S.

DETROW: I mean, anecdotally, it just seems miserable and possibly dangerous in so many places. But to try and get a sense of it, how bad are we talking about here in the U.S.?

ROTT: Yeah. It's real bad. On Friday, yesterday, you know, more than 93 million people were under excessive heat advisories and warnings, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures in parts of the Southwest are expected to top 120 degrees Fahrenheit this weekend. There's even a chance, if forecasts are accurate, that Death Valley, which currently holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded on the planet Earth at 134 degrees, could see that record matched or broken.

DETROW: Wow. I mean, just how dangerous is this?

ROTT: It's extremely dangerous, you know, for people and wildlife. A study published last week estimates that more than 61,000 people died during heatwaves in Europe last year. And we're looking at similar temperatures there right now. In the U.S., you know, public health officials are warning people to limit activity outdoors and to check up on neighbors, especially elderly people, folks with preexisting conditions and people that live in low-income areas who might not have access to AC or to even shade. Here's the director of California's Department of Public Health, Dr. Tomas Aragon, at a press briefing yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS BRIEFING)

TOMAS ARAGON: The symptoms that we become more concerned about is when your internal core temperature starts becoming elevated, so you may develop a fever. It can be impacting any organ, but the organ that we become most concerned about is when it starts impacting your brain.

ROTT: So that's when a person's judgment could be compromised. So they might not even recognize that they're in a dangerous situation and take the steps they need to to cool down. I should add here, too, Scott that public health officials warn this applies to everyone. You know, California looked at deaths associated with a heat wave in the state last year and found that many of the people who died were younger Latinos who were working outdoors or even physically fit people who just did their regular exercise routines, like going for hikes or runs.

DETROW: That's a good point because I feel like when I hear these warnings, your mind just kind of assumes this mostly applies to the elderly or people with broader conditions. But you're saying that is not the case here. I mean, look, it's summer. It's hot in the summer. It's always hot in the summer, in the Southwest especially, where we're focusing in on here. But there are so many signs that this is something broader. Why are we seeing so much widespread heat right now?

ROTT: So two reasons, Scott. You know, one is El Nino, which is a naturally occurring phenomena where ocean temperatures are hotter in the Pacific, which causes hotter temperatures around the world. That started this year and means we'll likely be looking at soaring temperatures again next summer. But the other major driver here, of course, is human activities. We are warming the planet by burning fossil fuels and adding more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Scott, I like to think of greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide - you know, the stuff we spew from our tailpipes - as kind of like down in a blanket or coat. It insulates the planet, capturing heat.

DETROW: And given all of that, how much have temperatures already risen?

ROTT: So average temperatures on the planet have already increased nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which is when we really started adding CO2 into the atmosphere. And when average temperatures go up, the highs become higher, as we're seeing right now. The last eight years were the hottest years on record for the planet. Preliminary data shows that the first week of this month of July was the hottest the world has seen in thousands, if not tens of thousands of years.

DETROW: Wow.

ROTT: And all of these superlatives that we're talking about, Scott, these records are expected to continue to be broken as we continue to release more fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere.

DETROW: That's NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, Scott. Check up on your neighbors this weekend.

DETROW: Will do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.