Yale School of the Environment professors weigh in on post-Labor Day heat wave
Professors at the Yale School of the Environment spoke with the News to discuss their thoughts about how an early-September heat wave which swept the Northeast might be a sign of hotter, more erratic weather to come.
Following a record-breaking heat wave that slammed the Northeast after Labor Day, several professors at the Yale School of the Environment told the News they fear heat waves like it might not be so unusual in years to come, especially for New Haven.
Xuhui Lee, a meteorology professor at YSE, said that experiments students conducted in a course he taught previously at the YSE found New Haven is vulnerable to both flood risks and hotter weather. High temperatures will be exacerbated by higher humidity levels due to the city’s proximity to the coast, Lee explained. Thanks to a phenomenon known as “land amplification,” higher temperatures over the land will consequently bring more water vapor into the atmosphere, according to Lee.
Unlike flash floods, however, Lee said that the effects of long-term, incremental temperature changes are often more diffuse, meaning it can be harder to motivate people to enact change.
“[Climate change] is a slow process,” said Lee. “It’s very hard to get people to act.”
Other professors also said that this September’s heat waves served as reminders of global warming’s reality.
“I think it’s really important to highlight that [climate change] is impacting us now,” Sara Kuebbing, School of the Environment professor and research director of the Yale Applied Science Synthesis Program, told the News.
The “privilege” of living in the global north has often insulated residents from feeling the immediate effects of climate change, Kuebbing said.
While the early-month string of 90-degree days that sent students scrambling for reprieve in common rooms and libraries is not historically abnormal, professors at the Yale School of the Environment said that it does offer telling previews of what the future school years — and life on a warming planet — might look like.
Through conversations with the News, they weighed in on the recent heat wave and brought attention to the larger concerns of health, safety and equality that climate change will present.
“I suppose what made this [heatwave] particularly a little bit unusual is that it’s not only high temperature but also humidity,” Lee told the News.
While unseasonably warm weather events in the fall happen frequently, Lee said that the recent heat wave’s significance might be better appreciated in light of larger, aggregate trends — all of which show “temperature, heat stress and heat waves” becoming increasingly more frequent in the New Haven area.
According to Lee, predicted weather data points to the heat wave — along with this summer’s Canadian wildfires and closed summer camps — as a wake-up call, impacting everyday life and productivity at work. Kuebbing added that her school-age children have directly felt the consequences as New Haven public schools were forced to close two hours earlier than usual during the week after Labor Day to protect children from the temperatures.
This past July was the hottest month recorded in the planet’s history, as swaths of North America and Europe sustained record-breaking heat waves that disrupted travel and killed tens of thousands of people. In response to widespread concerns about life on a warming planet, President Joseph Biden’s administration announced measures to issue heat hazard warnings and pledged to invest millions of dollars in improving weather forecasting.
Daniel Carrión, environmental health professor at the Yale School of Public Health, explained that the prevalence of hotter weather has pushed local governments to respond with innovations. He said that the Connecticut Department of Health had recently unveiled a new Office of Climate Change and Health — of which Yale is a partner — with help from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant funding. He also cited municipal efforts across the country to create cooling centers and prevent electrical companies from shutting off access to power — a practice that these companies sometimes employ under periods of extreme grid stress.
Kuebbing explained that government policy will be increasingly forced to fight on two fronts — balancing short-term policies protecting safety and well-being like cooling centers and air-conditioned schools with “harder responses,” such as carbon emissions management and an accelerated renewable energy transition.
The climate crisis remains part of a larger issue concerning inequality, YSE lecturer Pat Rogers added. Drawing upon his work studying Indigenous knowledge and practices, he said that “environmental and climate degradation are our most felt by these communities.” Per Rogers, the failure to provide resources to socioeconomically vulnerable populations often contributes to global warming’s “asymmetrical” impact.
“We don’t put the same amount of resources when we know these communities are affected the most,” said Rogers.
Carrión pointed to evidence that extreme heat impairs cognitive function and advised medically sensitive members to limit their outdoor exposure. For students trapped without air conditioning, he also recommended using a “cool washcloth” to complement running fans.
Carrión’s current research works to incorporate satellite sensing and ground observations to generate more refined temperature models within a given area. Such a model, he said, would provide a more granular account of real-time temperature disparities within cities and neighborhoods — most of which is systematically split down ethno-racial lines.
“I think this [heatwave] is a real sign of things to come,” said Kuebbing.
July 22, 2011, recorded the hottest-ever temperature in New Haven, notching 103 degrees Fahrenheit.