‘This is definitely on us’: June brings record-breaking heat

By: - July 13, 2021 6:15 am
An illustration of a map showing rising global heat

(Getty Images)

This story was updated on Tuesday, July 13 at 3:27 p.m. to clarify that this was the hottest June on record, not the hottest month.

This June was the hottest on record for New Hampshire, in addition to breaking heat records across North America.

A report released by the National Centers for Environmental Information shows that the average U.S. temperature was 72.6 degrees Fahrenheit, 4.2 degrees higher than the 20th-century average. It was .9 degrees warmer than the last record-warm June in 2016.

The average temperature in New Hampshire in June was 66.5 degrees, which is 5 degrees over the typical 20th-century temperature of 61.5.

The report also identified eight billion-dollar weather and climate disasters between January and June, linked to severe storms, flooding, one cold snap, and one heat wave.

In New England, a heat wave in early June was a “significant climate anomaly,” according to the report. The heat wave forced school closings as temperatures reached the high 80s and the low 90s.

The record comes as part of a longer trend of increasingly warm temperatures over the last century, according to Erich Osterberg, associate professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth, who studies climate change and serves as the vice chair of the Upper Valley Adaptation Workgroup.

Over the past century, New Hampshire has warmed two to three degrees, which is on par with the global average for warming temperatures, Osterberg said.

“The globe altogether has been just continually setting records for record warmths every couple of years,” Osterberg said.

These warming temperatures are directly linked to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, caused by human activity.

“This is definitely on us,” Osterberg said.

One piece of the equation that’s especially concerning now is how many days are over 90 degrees – the temperature at which humans start to struggle with heat stress. While the state currently experiences about a week of temperatures over 90 degrees, with climate change that could increase to anywhere from one to two months of days above 90 degrees.

That’s already happening in some parts of the state. Last summer alone, Manchester had 32 days over 90, according to Sherry Godlewski, co-chair of the New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workgroup and the resilience and adaptation manager for the Department of Environmental Services, charged with helping communities understand how climate change will impact them and how they can be more resilient in the face of these changes.

Godlewski said the Manchester weather shows that things are heating up faster than a 2016 report had projected.

“That wasn’t projected to happen until 2035,” she said.

Overnight temperatures are also breaking records in New Hampshire and across the country, which is a major concern for human health because it leaves less time for people’s body temperatures to cool.

Osterberg said the science on climate change has been “unequivocal” for decades, showing that rising temperatures are caused by human activity.

“I would hope that we could stop having a false debate about whether climate change is real or happening or a problem,” he said.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the highest it has been in millions of years, a much higher level than humans have ever encountered. The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the more temperatures rise. And rising temperatures in turn fuel storms and droughts.

“What’s frustrating,” Osterberg said, “is that it’s really not that complicated.”

And, he said, there isn’t any one piece of scientific evidence that can change the thinking of climate change deniers.  

“There’s really nothing I can say with science or with graphs or with data that’s going to change their mind,” he said.

In spite of these frustrations, Osberberg is optimistic when it comes to humans’ ability to address climate change: Since we are a part of the problem, we can also be part of the solution. He and other climate scientists have pointed out that humans can help slow global warming by curbing carbon dioxide emissions, which would help to avoid the worst impacts of climate change that are yet to come. And even better, Osterberg says, is that the tools to do that – such as cost-competitive energy from solar and wind – already exist.

While some may be distrustful of the science, extreme weather events could help prompt action, Osterberg said.  

“With the wildfires and the hurricanes and the droughts, it’s becoming more and more clear that we can’t ignore it,” he said.

Climate change may be a hot-button issue, but no one can argue with an ambulance’s inability to get down someone’s road in an emergency because of flooding, said Abigail Lyon, who works alongside Godlewski as co-chair of New Hampshire’s Coastal Adaptation Workgroup.

Lyon said grounding a recommendation in the here and now can help some who are distrustful of the science get on board with actions to improve their situation.

“Really grounding it in experiences, I think, is a key piece,” she said.

In New Hampshire’s coastal region, one of the biggest impacts on residents has been persistent flooding, which worsens as temperatures continue to climb.

Flooding is one problem that the Coastal Adaptation Workgroup has been focused on for years. Coastal towns such as Hampton flood once a week or even more often – with tides over 10 feet. The flooding means that people can’t park on the streets, and water can also inundate the town when it comes in from the marsh on the other side of town.

“There’s a lot of attention put on the coast because our communities are seeing the impacts on a day-to-day basis,” Godlewski said.

With many businesses along the coast, the flooding impacts a major economic driver for the community. And in Portsmouth, the flooding has already reached the town’s historic buildings.

Some probabilistic scenarios show that New Hampshire could see up to 9 feet of sea-level rise by 2100, which would make parts of the state uninhabitable. That number could be much lower, depending on how greenhouse gas emissions are managed moving forward.

“You really can’t talk about whole neighborhoods being underwater, because it’s just too scary,” Godlewski said. “We still stay positive and say, ‘We can do this if we work together,’ and encourage our policymakers to make good decisions.”

Another part of the workgroup’s approach is encouraging communities to think about land use as it relates to climate change. That means reconsidering future development in an already populated coastal region.

Conserving open land near a salt marsh, for example, can allow space to migrate landward as sea levels rise. Buffer regulations are one way of doing that, a method Godlewski pitches to towns as a safety measure. 

“An intact ecosystem is a more resilient ecosystem,” she said. “Whereas if we chop it up, it’s not going to provide the flood retention.”

“It’s really important to think wisely about how and if we are developing open land at this point in time,” Godlewski said.

While flooding is the biggest issue in coastal New Hampshire, it isn’t the only one. With warmer weather has come drought and an explosion in the tick population that could lead to an increase in tick-borne diseases.

For Godlewski, all of these issues are symptoms that stem from one central problem.

“You have to understand all the things you see around you, all these extreme events, are all signals of a changing climate,” she said.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.