Words on Weather and Climate — July 15, 2010

Heat Wave 2010


Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

According to the National Weather Service, in our part of the country a heat wave is defined as a period of at least three consecutive days of temperatures at 90F or warmer. The period July 4 through July 7 had high temperatures each day of 92 degrees both in Grand Rapids and Lansing. The last heat wave was only three years ago, in 2007, when we had five days in a row of 90-degree weather with highs of 93, 97, 96, 94 and 91 between July 30 and August 3.

What is amazing to me is not that we had four days in a row of temperatures in the 90s during the first week of July, but that all four days had exactly the same high temperature. Now that is a very rare event. In fact, it has only happened once before in Grand Rapids since records began back in 1892. I doubt it has ever happened in both Grand Rapids and Lansing at the same time with exactly the same temperatures.

It still looks to me as if the entire summer is going to end up a little warmer than average, but it won’t produce many, if any, records for heat. The greatest number of consecutive 90-degree days on record is 11, set way back in 1901 when it was supposed to be cooler than now. How about the heat wave of 1936 when, between July 7 and July 14, high temperatures in Grand Rapids were 98, 101, 101, 102, 99, 106, 108 and 102. Several of those nights had lows around 80 and there was no air conditioning. What do you think the media would do if another heat wave like that occurred again today?

The hottest weather of this heat wave was from Boston through New York City to Washington, D.C., where temperatures did hit 100 degrees or higher, but fortunately without the high humidity so common in heat waves in that part of the country.

On Tuesday, July 6, the official high temperature in Baltimore, recorded at the Baltimore-Washington International airport, was 105 degrees, a new record for the date and just one degree shy of the all-time record high set in 1930. However, could the location of the thermometer now be producing an inflated temperature reading?

This picture is of the temperature sensor, called Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), and shows the temperature is now taken between concrete runways, near asphalt and also an exhaust vent from an air conditioner unit. It is interesting to note that the temperature in downtown Baltimore was two degrees cooler than the official reading at the airport. Traditionally, it has been warmer at city locations, but that is frequently only the case now at night.

An experiment was done at the Albany, New York airport on the same day as the Baltimore record high. The Albany air temperature never got higher than 96 degrees, but the temperature on the tarmac there climbed to 192 degrees, just 20 degrees shy of the boiling point of water.

Do you think the Baltimore temperature sensor located between two hot runways, near asphalt and an air conditioner vent may give an artificially high temperature? How can this temperature be used to compare with a temperature taken 80 years ago? How can it be used to produce a climate record? Airport temperature readings were designed specifically for aviation interests, not for climate trends. Most official temperature readings across the United States, and increasingly across the world, are now taken near airport runways, which has produced an artificial warming trend in recent years. It is man-made, but it has nothing to do with carbon dioxide.

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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