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Sweltering: How New Hampshire residents handled early-season extreme heat this week

At the 39 Beech Street Engagement Center in Manchester, a fire department truck provides air conditioning for the usually non-air conditioned space.
Sarah Gibson
At the 39 Beech Street Engagement Center in Manchester, a fire department truck provides air conditioning for the usually non-air conditioned space.

The heat wave that swept through New Hampshire this week has finally let up. But the sweltering temperatures increased demands on some emergency responders, outdoor workers and farms across the state – as well as New England’s electric grid.

The heat also brought warnings about unhealthy levels of pollutants in New Hampshire’s air and water bodies.

The string of days reaching above 90 degrees paints a portrait of a potential future for the state, as climate change makes heat waves more frequent and more intense.

“The past few days have been absolutely brutal,” said Harold Davis, who runs HD Seal & Stripe, a pavement maintenance company. “Yesterday I had three shirts with me. By the end of the first job, you’d be so soaked with sweat you’d literally have to change your shirt.”

On a hot day, the pavement can get to 140 degrees. The coating Davis’s team uses makes it even hotter. And when they fill in cracks in driveways, the machine they use to melt material runs at 550 degrees.

Davis brings a cooler with bags of ice, water, and electrolyte drinks for his team. He keeps the AC in his truck running so people can take breaks. He pours ice water on his wrists, sticks cold water bottles under his armpits, and wears a sun hat with a pocket for ice cubes resting against his neck.

But still, he said, the job is miserable when it’s over 80 degrees.

“90 to 100 degrees, it’s hard to ignore that heat,” he said. “You just feel like someone’s holding a match to your face.”

Read more: New England workers face extra hazards from heat and few specific workplace protections

The heat New Hampshire residents experienced was made at least two to three times more likely by human-caused climate change, according to the nonprofit Climate Central. Parts of New England experienced heat made at least four times more likely.

In New Hampshire, residents could see up to 60 days of 90-degree heat by the end of the century in a higher emissions scenario – a full two months of sweltering temperatures. That’s cut in half in a scenario where humans reduce fossil fuel emissions, according to the state’s most recent climate assessment.

Heat isn’t just uncomfortable; it’s dangerous. It’s the No. 1 cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., where the Centers for Disease Control estimates it kills about 1,220 people each year. Other estimates put the toll at likely at least 10,000 people each year, because heat isn’t always listed on someone’s death certificate.

When the human body can’t cool itself, people can experience heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat can cause brain and organ damage. It can also exacerbate other medical problems people are having.

“Very hot, heavy, humid weather like we've had for the past several days is really challenging for folks with underlying respiratory illnesses and other comorbidities,” said Hampton Fire Chief Michael McMahon.

Wednesday was particularly busy for McMahon, with many people visiting the beach during the Juneteenth holiday. His team responded to calls for dizziness, fainting and dehydration.

At the Manchester fire department, battalion chief Robert Plantier said his team was responding to at least 20 calls a day. Plantier said people not drinking enough water, or drinking too much water and not enough electrolytes, were major issues.

“People suffering heat exhaustion or heat stroke, people even at the shelters passing out or feeling dizzy – basically all heat related,” he said.

Some fire departments, like Keene’s, Conway’s and Nashua’s, didn’t see a big spike in heat-related calls. Each of those communities opened cooling shelters, as did the city of Manchester.

On the whole, New Hampshire’s 911 system received 39 calls on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday related to heat. That’s more calls than they received about heat in the whole month of June last year.

Staying cool

Cooling centers can serve as important places for people to take a break from the heat and re-set their body temperature. Children, older adults, and people with chronic conditions are particularly vulnerable to hot temperatures, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

At the Nashua Public Library, Stephanie Frounjian said she changed her plans for the week in order to keep her toddler out of the heat.

“Typically we’d at the park right now, or in the pool, but with little kids it’s a little too hot,” Frounjian said.

She added it can be difficult to find indoor activities for her son that are affordable, making the library an important place for parents.

In Manchester, city libraries, a senior center, and an engagement center served as places for residents to cool off.

Corey Batista spent the afternoon at the Manchester City Library on Tuesday, staying cool and charging his phone.

Batista has been homeless since 2006. His grandmother was his guardian until she passed away from cancer when he was just a teenager. Since then, he hasn’t been able to find a stable place to live.

When the library closes, he said he will try to find a tree he can seek some shade under for the night. He has not had his luck with shelters this past week.

“I refuse to go to the shelter because it's pretty much first come, first serve for beds. And now that it's like, warm out, people are going to go in there,” he said.

Batista said he struggles with his mental health and the heat has worsened his anxiety.

Farmers manage through three hot days

Animals and plants have a hard time in the heat too.

On LaValley farms in Hooksett, owner Chris LaValley said livestock needed extra attention during the heatwave. Animals like chickens and cows are also at risk for heat related illnesses and even death.

While some workers were able to adjust their hours to avoid the heat, LaValley said keeping livestock safe meant some employees were working twice as hard.

For pasture animals, LaValley says water is key to staying cool.

“So normally we may use 400 to 500 gallons a day,” he said. “We're, like, pushing 900 to 1000 gallons.”

On Sunfox farms, owner Greg Pollack was thinking about his recently planted sunflowers.

“The heat wave definitely stresses the young plants quite a bit,” he said.

Pollack is hopeful that their bloom time will not be affected by the heat, but said that will depend on whether extreme temperatures return.

LaValley said New England farmers do their best to prepare for the extremes mother nature throws at them.

“If we started to get five, six, seven, eight, nine days in a row, that would be really hard to mitigate,” he said. “But a short burst of a heat wave is certainly something that we can handle.”

Corrected: June 24, 2024 at 9:54 AM EDT
This story has been updated to clarify that heat in New Hampshire was made two to three times more likely by human-caused climate change, rather than four times more likely. Heat in other parts of New England was made four times more likely.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
Sadaf Tokhi is a rising senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is studying journalism and sociology. She's written for the school's newspaper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, and has reported for the campus radio station, WMUA 91.1.
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