PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — Central Pennsylvania has been HOT this week, offering a string of high temperatures in the 90s and even prompting a “Dangerous Heat Advisory” for parts of the Midstate. This kind of hot weather could become more common in the future as the state feels the impacts of climate change.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s 2021 Climate Change Impacts Assessment, the state’s average temperature is predicted to rise 5.9 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century compared to a 1971-2000 baseline.
The report predicts “more frequent and intense extreme heat events” as well as “less frequent but heavier rain events” that could contribute to a greater average amount of rainfall.
Essentially, “our climate is getting warmer and wetter,” David Althoff, director of the Energy Programs Office at the Pennsylvania DEP, said.
Although weather and climate are not the same — weather refers to short-term fluctuations while climate refers to long-term patterns — overall weather reflects the changing climate. And weather like Pennsylvania has experienced this week could become more common in the future.
The DEP’s impacts assessment predicts, for example, that temperatures around the state will reach at least 90 degrees more frequently than in the past. From 1971-2000, the average number of at-least-90-degree days across Pennsylvania was five. That number is estimated to increase to 37 by the middle of this century (2041-2070).
Last year, Central Pennsylvania’s daily high temperatures reached 90 degrees or higher on 35 days, abc27 meteorologist Dan Tomaso explained in an email. This area typically has 21 days with high temperatures at least in the 90s, and as of (but not including) Friday, Aug. 13, there have been 28 such days so far in 2021, Tomaso said.
Warmer weather can also mean wetter weather. “Unfortunately as the average temperature of the atmosphere climbs, the air can hold more water. This leads to more heavy rain events locally,” Tomaso said.
More moisture in the air means more humidity, which can make hot days feel even hotter. “A day that is near 95 degrees can feel like 105-110 degrees due to high humidity, which can lead to exhaustion or heat-related illnesses if you spend too much time outside,” Tomaso said.
Impacts of climate change
The Climate Change Impacts Assessment also looked at potential risks and impacts of climate change, such as the health challenges posed by warmer weather.
It states that higher temperatures could lead to increased prevalence of heat-related illness or death, allergies, mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses, and even violence or mental health challenges. The report also notes that flooding and severe storms can have negative impacts such as making driving more dangerous or exposing people to contaminated floodwater.
“What we’re seeing now are extreme rain events, and so people are way more likely to get a wet basement, to have our roads damaged or disrupted, to have damage to their homes, and even to lose lives,” Stephanie Wein, clean water and conservation advocate with PennEnvironment, said.
Agriculture might see some benefits from climate change, such as longer growing seasons as spring and fall have more warm days, Tomaso noted. On the other hand, some farmers may face new challenges related to climate change. For example, cows may produce less milk in the heat.
The effects of climate change also stress infrastructure in the state. For one thing, heating and cooling during extreme temperature events can strain the energy grid, Tomaso noted.
The DEP’s report also investigates how Pennsylvanians will be impacted by climate change unevenly from an environmental justice viewpoint. “Climate change will not affect all Pennsylvanians equally. Some may be more at risk because of their location, income, housing, health, or other factors,” the report reads.
Lower-income households may not be able to run their air conditioners to cool off completely during extremely hot days, for example, which can lead to heat-related health challenges that other Pennsylvanians don’t face, Althoff explained.
As much as staying cool during hot days like Midstate residents experienced this week is important, running the A/C all day might be contributing to climate change. Many sources of energy that power buildings’ air conditioning also emit greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.
“It’s a complex system for sure, which is why we need to develop solutions which have a lessening impact on our environment, which deliver the same benefits,” Althoff said.
“A movement away from greenhouse gas emission should mean a shift to more sustainable energy solutions including wind, solar, and electric motors. This is not only an infrastructure issue for PA, but the entire country,” Tomaso said.
Mitigating climate change
It’s a global issue with local ramifications, but mitigating climate change may also include local solutions. And according to a new report released earlier this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, now is the time to act to avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change.
According to the IPCC report, “we are now sort of locked into a certain amount of climate change because we haven’t acted in the past,” Wein said. “The report also tells us that without swift action, things could get a lot worse.”
Pennsylvania is already experiencing some of the impacts of climate change. For example, that 5.9-degree increase in average temperatures in the state predicted by the DEP is on top of a nearly 2-degree increase that Pennsylvania has seen since 1900, Althoff noted.
“I think we should feel urgency. I think that we shouldn’t go to despair,” Wein said. “Somewhere between apathy and nihilism — you have to catch people between those to where we can take action.”
Wein suggests contacting elected officials and urging them to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, encouraging the development of electric vehicle infrastructure, and encouraging investment in renewable energy are ways Pennsylvanians can make a difference for the planet.
“All solutions start locally,” said Althoff. In Pennsylvania, this may be especially true, as Wein says that Pennsylvania accounts for nearly 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions because of the amount of fossil fuels burned in the state.
“There’s an enormous amount of opportunity and responsibility being a Pennsylvanian right now…and so thinking of what we can all collectively do together as Pennsylvanians is going to have a really big impact, not just here but honestly across the world,” Wein said.