Pandemic Complicates N.H. Cities' Plans For Dealing With Climate Change-Driven Heat Waves | New Hampshire Public Radio

Pandemic Complicates N.H. Cities' Plans For Dealing With Climate Change-Driven Heat Waves

Jul 16, 2020

New Hampshire is seeing more heat waves due to climate change. And staying cool is even harder this year because of COVID-19. Our new climate change reporting project, By Degrees, has this look at how New Hampshire's cities are coping. 

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On one of the hottest days of the summer so far, the sprinklers built into a high school sports field in downtown Manchester are on full blast. Several families have showed up to cool off -- kids are chasing their parents through the sprinklers, and everyone is soaked. 

"I wasn't planning on getting wet,” says Pablo Rodriguez, fending off squirt gun attacks from his children. “But after feeling the water, I was like wow, that water actually feel kinda good.”

Alissa Hurd plays with her son in the sprinklers, in what's been the second-hottest year on record after 2016.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

He says there's nowhere else for his kids to go on a day like this one – they can’t play outside at home. 

“That driveway – they don’t really take care of that apartment that well,” Rodriguez says. “So we don’t let the kids play outside, because there’s too many, like, broken glass, nails all over the driveway.”

Turning on these sprinklers on the hottest afternoons instead of early in the morning is one of the few ways Manchester can help its residents during heat waves right now. The city pools are closed, and so are typical cooling stations like the public library. 

Watching her daughter and grandkids run through the sprinklers, Deborah Hurd says it reminds her of growing up in New York, playing in open fire hydrants. Now, her family is cooped up at home in the pandemic, and she says they're trying to use less air conditioning. 

“It’s really hot and you’re in there all the time, so you want the air to circulate,” she says. “It’s already reflecting on the bills.”

There’s an irony here: the expensive extra power used for cooling in these hotter summers is contributing to the carbon emissions that are causing the increase in temperatures. New England gets most of its electricity from natural gas, and a small amount from coal and oil. 

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"Here in New England, we're seeing a particular rise in these extreme heat days,” says Rachel Cleetus, who leads the climate and energy project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says this region is warming faster than most other parts of the country. 

In the past, New Hampshire has only seen a few days a year that feel like they're over 90 degrees – when heat advisories are typically issued. There have been at least 12 of those days so far this summer, according to forecast data for Manchester. Globally, 2020 has been the second-hottest year on record after 2016.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Cleetus says, even if we were to stop using fossil fuels, people in New Hampshire will have to get used to more extreme heat – which kills more people in the U.S. each year than any other kind of weather. That includes things like hurricanes and floods, which often receive more attention in relation to climate change.

Scientists also now say they can link heat waves to climate change with more confidence than they can other weather events - part of a still-evolving modeling discipline called attribution science.

Heat is most dangerous to the very old, very young, people who work outside or are homeless, and people who are incarcerated. People of color are more likely to be affected by it, as are people who live in cities – heat is trapped by all that pavement and dark roofs with fewer trees, in what's known as the urban heat island effect.

People with asthma or other health problems are also at greater risk from heat – just like they are from COVID-19. This summer, Cleetus says, "they're faced with a difficult situation where the only way to stay safe is actually going to be to stay home." 

But she says home air conditioning and other cooling options aren’t a given in New England, like they are in places that are accustomed to the kind of heat this region is starting to see. Buildings here, especially older ones, are designed to trap heat, not alleviate it. 

Cleetus says energy efficiency and weatherization are a more sustainable solution to this problem than more air conditioning. She and many other environmental groups are pushing policymakers to focus on these interventions as a potential job creator in the economic recovery from COVID-19. 

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Right now, people in New Hampshire who need cooling urgently and can't afford air conditioning have few  options.

One group that's trying to help is Project CoolAir, run on donations by the nonprofit Area Home Care in Portsmouth. Program director MaryJane Walsh says they give out ACs to provide even one cool room for low-income seniors and other at-risk Rockingham County residents. 

Some families who came to play in the sprinklers in Manchester on a recent hot day said they couldn't afford an air conditioner, or to run what they did have all the time during the pandemic.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

"In the summer, we think of air conditioning as something nice to have and it's certainly helpful,” Walsh says. “But for some of these people, it is the difference between healthy living and not." 

This year, with cooling centers closed and everyone stuck at home, Walsh says they’ve seen an increase in demand – delivering 25 ACs as of early July, versus 15 at this time last year.

"I do wish we would hear [from people who need an AC] sooner rather than later,” she says. “But unfortunately, when you're right in the middle of that heat wave, the phones start ringing." 

The pandemic has caused some local officials to focus more on preparing for extreme heat, instead of just reacting to it.

In Nashua, emergency management director Justin Kates says they already thought of heat as a top climate change priority – but this year saw their response plan totally upended. Now, he says they're shuttling people to the mall until they can safely reopen cooling centers with physical distancing, mask requirements and cleaning protocols in place.

Moreover, Kates says they're thinking about how federal coronavirus aid money could help them distribute air conditioners or more efficient heat pumps – even in the future, if not this year.

"Really one of the only reasons why something like this might be done,” he says, “is you've got the funding available to try to respond to COVID-19 … but also try to find ways to make the community more resilient to other types of hazards as well." 

Nashua has a new temporary employee from the Centers for Disease Control Foundation whose entire job is to help rethink the city's heat plan. That worker just started – ahead of another heat wave that's forecast for early next week.

See more of By Degrees and find out how to get involved at nhpr.org/climate.