When Summer Becomes the Season of Danger and Dread

The end of summer arrives, as every child knows, when the first bell rings on the first day of the school year. But where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, the season shows few signs of departing. The triple-digit temperatures that descended for a week in late July and intermittently in August returned to the West last week, breaking records from Southern California to Montana. This week, Sacramento reported an all-time high temperature of a hundred and sixteen degrees, and Death Valley reported what may be the highest September temperature ever measured on earth: a hundred and twenty-seven degrees. Despite a relatively quiet start to wildfire season, by Friday firefighters were battling sixteen large fires in Washington and Oregon. Instead of clear skies and autumn chills, we can expect hot, hazy mornings and smoke-stained sunsets for weeks to come.

For those of us in the planet’s temperate zones, the annual return of four roughly equal seasons—one cold, one hot, and two in between—has shaped our history and our habits. But the seasons are increasingly out of balance, and even the most ambitious attempts to curb climate pollution will not fully realign them. Climate scientists report that, in 1952, the summer heat lasted about seventy-eight days in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. In 2011, it lasted about ninety-five days. Even if greenhouse gas emissions peak at mid-century and decline rapidly thereafter, warm temperatures will engulf more of each year until at least the end of the two-thousands. And, if fossil-fuel use continues unabated, the summer of 2100 could last for nearly half the year.

For my family, as for many others in the American West, summer was traditionally a time for weekend camping trips, mountain hikes, and theatre and music festivals. Those outdoor plans are increasingly disrupted by wildfires, smoke, and extreme heat—events that confine us to our homes, or to emergency shelters, and tether us to our screens. We nervously refresh weather reports and wildfire maps, text reassurances to friends and family, and restlessly scroll Netflix. Instead of slinging on backpacks, we fill and refill our go bags, wondering whether a sack of aspirin and granola bars will be of any use at all. At best, these are dull, anxious times that recall pandemic lockdowns; at worst, they are life-threatening.

In 2014, in an essay for The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith mourned the vanishing of the seasons that she once knew. She lamented the “seemingly small things” that were previously taken for granted and could no longer be counted on: winter frost, hedgehogs in London gardens, bumblebees at picnics. At the end of the essay, after describing a withered rose garden that she visited one July, she hinted at what comes after mourning: “I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?”

Eight years later, the warming has accelerated and the losses no longer seem small. Our four unsettled seasons appear to be fusing into two: hot and less hot, deadly and less deadly. Around the world, summer heat, drought, floods, and fire now pose such grave and intertwined threats to life and property that Kristina Dahl, a climate researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has argued that summer should be renamed “danger season.” Are we approaching the end of another summer, or the end of summer as we know it?

The version of summer that most North Americans grew up with is a relatively recent invention, and it can be traced to a human-caused change in the climate. In the eighteen-forties, New York City public schools took only a three-week summer break. But, as urban centers grew larger, denser, and more industrialized, they also grew hotter, thanks to urban warming known as the heat-island effect. Whereas the poor mostly sweltered in place, wealthier city dwellers fled to summer resorts and vacation spots. Fewer and fewer students showed up during the hot months, a decline hastened by fears of summer disease outbreaks and a growing belief in the health benefits of leisure.

New York City officials eventually bowed to reality. By 1853, they had lengthened summer vacation to five weeks; by 1872, it had grown to nearly two months. Schools in Detroit, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Toronto followed suit, as did districts in other parts of North America. The shift was not universally popular—“a general feeling exists among the parents of our constituencies that the Vacations are too long,” one letter from local Canadian leaders to Ontario school officials complained—but it stuck. By the end of the nineteenth century, an extended summer hiatus was a standard part of the school year in the U.S. and Canada. As the historians Joel Weiss and Robert S. Brown have written, the long holiday became one of the “great clocks of society.”

Travel became cheaper, and soon holidaying families crisscrossed America, boosting commerce and the national-park system, the historian Cindy S. Aron writes in her book “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States.” The nation’s summer sleepaway camps, which numbered fewer than a hundred at the turn of the twentieth century, multiplied to more than a thousand by 1918. Affluent Black families, shut out of many vacation spots by Jim Crow laws, founded resort communities in Florida, Michigan, California, and other states, which offered respite not only from the urban heat but from the corrosive stress of racism. After the First World War, Europeans democratized summer leisure when the political left and right united in support of paid summer breaks for workers. Summer, on both sides of the Atlantic, was reimagined as an escape from the familiar routines of school and work.

Over a decade ago, Vivek Shandas, an urban ecologist at Portland State University, began giving presentations about the dangers of escalating summer heat to local officials in Oregon and Washington, states that were historically known for their cool and cloudy weather, and where air-conditioning was considered a needless indulgence. More often than not, he was “laughed out of the room,” he told me recently. “The attitude was, ‘Well, this is cute; great, thanks.’ ”

In 2014, on an unusually hot day in August, Shandas drove through the streets of Portland with several colleagues and volunteers. Temperature sensors and G.P.S. units mounted on their vehicles collected a total of about sixty thousand temperature readings in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and evening. Their street-level data revealed that individual experiences of warm weather varied by the hour and by a person’s precise location in the city; at certain times of the day, some spots were twenty degrees hotter than others. When the researchers overlaid the temperatures on a detailed city map, they found that, in the morning, places with more ground vegetation and fewer large structures were the coolest, presumably because they had absorbed less heat overnight. In the afternoon and evening, areas where buildings varied in height were more comfortable, probably because air could circulate through them.

The Pacific Northwest was not built for the heat. On the cloudy coast, and even in the inland deserts, homes are usually designed to keep residents warm. For the most part, rain, wind, and shade are treated as inevitabilities or inconveniences—not limited, potentially life-saving resources. But in June, 2021, when an atmospheric “heat dome” trapped hot ocean air over the area for two weeks, a wave of extraordinarily high temperatures sent thousands of people to emergency rooms and led to more than eight hundred deaths in the U.S. and Canada. Scientists with the World Weather Attribution initiative described the heat as “virtually impossible” without the influence of climate change.

Although news reports focussed on the high temperatures, which exceeded a hundred and twenty degrees and shattered all-time records, what my body noticed were the nightly lows that never came. Long after midnight, there was no respite from the heat—only plenty of time to lie awake, imagining the summers to come. “It was a moment of reckoning more severe than anybody expected,” Shandas told me. “I spent the hottest days up to my eyeballs in the Sandy River.”

The city and state officials who failed to prepare for the heat dome have since scrambled to designate additional public cooling centers, install indoor heat sensors, and create new laws and regulations to protect low-income households and outdoor workers. Cities and states have subsidized and distributed air-conditioning units to those who need them most urgently, such as mobile-home residents, who suffered disproportionately in the extreme heat. My house in rural Washington is protected by partial shade and decent insulation, but, were it not for the frosty embrace of my family’s janky window unit on this broiling afternoon, I could not think clearly enough to write this.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in coöperation with other agencies, has recruited volunteers to map the heat in dozens of U.S. cities, and more recently in Rio de Janeiro and Freetown, Sierra Leone. The results, taken together, suggest that during extreme heat events the poorest neighborhoods tend to be the most dangerous. But they also suggest that relatively small changes in behavior and infrastructure can transform a life-threatening location into a refuge. Shandas pointed out that humans, like most animals, tend to seek shelter in the heat, an instinct that seems sensible but can lead us to risk our lives in superheated indoor spaces. During heat waves, officials can encourage residents to resist the urge to burrow, and instead make use of outdoor shade shelters.

Thanks in part to new awareness of and readiness for the heat, this summer has been less deadly for the Pacific Northwest—even though temperatures, at times, have been as high or higher than during the heat dome. But cooling costs money and emits greenhouse gases that make the warming even worse—debts that will be carried less by the chief perpetrators of climate change than by those suffering its effects. We cannot wait until the next disaster to further protect ourselves, Shandas told me. “My wish is that heat readiness becomes less of an emergency-management activity and more of a climate-preparedness activity,” he said.

Summers of the future will require new conceptions of public-health and environmental justice. More and more cities and states are hiring experts, from heat specialists to chief resilience officers, to protect their residents from the immediate and expected dangers of climate change. In coming years, cities may need to update their building codes to insure equitable access to overlooked resources such as breeze, shade, and greenery—all of which tend to be scarcer in poorer neighborhoods. With millions more people dependent on cooling, power grids will need to be overhauled to accommodate summer demand while minimizing emissions.

As in the nineteenth century, we may need to reimagine the school calendar: in the past decade, school districts around the country have declared almost twice as many “heat days” as they did in the previous decade; by 2025, more than thirteen thousand U.S. schools, most of them in Northern states, will need to install air-conditioning to complete the standard school year safely, according to a recent study by the Center for Climate Integrity. Schools could teach the dangers of summer as they have long taught the dangers of smoking; fire drills could evolve to encompass other summer calamities. Perhaps, in years to come, outdoor-education programs will show students how to clear flammable brush, map escape routes, or check on elderly neighbors, giving them all-too-relevant experience in the practice of mutual aid.

Summer is the season when Puck mixes up the recipients of a love potion in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Summer allows Sandy to fall for Danny in “Grease,” and Oliver to fall for Elio in “Call Me by Your Name.” And could Jay Gatsby have rekindled his doomed courtship of Daisy Buchanan in any other season? Fictional summers are sometimes dull or dangerous or both—recall the menacing humidity of “To Kill a Mockingbird” or the southern Italian heat in which Tom Ripley hatches his murderous plans—but a summer setting usually presages pleasure, mischief, and at least a temporary reprieve from responsibility. When a heat wave smothers New York City in the theatrical production of “In the Heights,” the neighborhood eventually comes together, and a citywide blackout gives Nina and Benny cover for a kiss.

My family’s summers still have storybook moments, but lately we have also spent long afternoons huddled around the air-conditioner as if it were a hearth. In fits of craftiness, we have improvised surprisingly effective air purifiers out of box fans and furnace filters. We have experienced the kind of cabin fever usually associated with winter, festering irritably inside while the sun crawls across the sky. At the height of one recent heat wave, I took temporary refuge in the air-conditioning of my local public library, only to make a hasty exit after snapping at our librarian, horrified by the grinch I had apparently become.

One sweaty evening this summer, my teen-ager and I stretched out on the couch in the living room and watched Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” I had forgotten how thoroughly heat envelops the movie; its single day in Brooklyn starts hot and gets hotter, and in the filtered yellow light the characters sweat and argue, blaming one another for problems created by others. None of them have any illusions about summer; even Coney Island feels out of reach. Summer has its pleasures—spurting fire hydrants, piraguas, sexy games with ice cubes—but it’s essentially a time of tedium, of extra work for parents and not enough work for most everyone else. The movie is a portrait of one neighborhood’s summer realities, but, thirty-three years after its release, it also struck me as a vision of collective summers to come. As heat triggers rage and rage triggers tragedy, the only character who consistently keeps his cool is Mister Señor Love Daddy, a d.j. who surveys the neighborhood from behind the glass of his street-level recording studio. Played by a young Samuel L. Jackson, Love Daddy counsels calm, but his words are no match for the blazing resentments outside. The next morning, his signature patter is mournful but insistent. “My people, my people, what can I say? Say what I can. I saw it but didn’t believe it; I didn’t believe what I saw,” he says. “Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live?”

The season we know as summer may still create opportunities for joy, beauty, and unlikely romance. Decades from now, with steady effort, its weather may be restored to something like that of summers past. But for the rest of most of our lives the hot months are likely to become less hospitable and more frightening. They will require preparation and creativity, co​​öperation and patience. What so many have come to think of as a season of escape will become—if we are diligent and lucky—a season of survival. ♦

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