Thursday, July 15, 2010

East Coasters Roasted by Heat Wave

By Ben Remo

Science Museum of Virginia intern

Residents of the east coast may have noticed an increase in heat lately. This increase has led to scorching temperatures of over 100 degrees. Most might be asking, how can this possibly happen? Why should we be subjected to such a hot summer? These dangerous, record breaking temperatures are caused by a heat wave currently hovering along the Atlantic coast. Last week, the northeast region experienced the worst heat wave in years.
At times temperatures have been above 100 degrees in some areas. New York City has opened over 100 cooling centers around the city providing relief from the heat for those who do not have access to air conditioning. Here in Central Virginia we have been subjected to temperatures around 100 degrees for days at a time.

How Heat Waves Work
Heat waves occur when temperatures are 10 degrees or above the normal averages in a region for a substantial period of time.
Ironically, heat waves do not mean that the earth is closer to the sun, a common misconception. According to National Geographic News, the week after 4th of July weekend, the earth was farther away from the sun than it will be at any other time this year. This is because the distance between us and the nearest star has little to do with the surface temperature here on earth.
The tilt of the earth on its axis has more to do with the occurrence of a heat wave. This is what makes for seasonal change. It is currently summer in the Northern Hemisphere because we are pointed towards the sun on the axis.
The formation of heat waves can be attributed to ridges of high pressure in the atmosphere that hang around the sky for some period of time. These ridges make the air hot and move clouds away, making the surface hotter. Clouds are a lot like oven mitts for the earth’s surface. The clouds act as a buffer between the surface and the sun just like oven mitts are a buffer between our hands and a hot object in the kitchen. When those “oven mitts” are not around, it makes for some hot days.

How to Stay Cool
OK. We know what causes heat waves; the next step is learning how to stay cool in the middle of one.
First, dress appropriately for the heat. With work that may be easier said than done. But on the weekends or after work, try to wear open toed shoes (no socks!) and loose, breathable clothes. When running the air conditioner, turn on all the fans in the house. It helps the cool air spread throughout the house. Next, go to the local pool or water park. While keeping you cool, a day at the pool is also good family fun. Drink cold water to stay hydrated. If you’re hydrated, you’re cool. Lastly, according to ingredients in spicy foods actually cool you down after awhile. Add a marginal amount of peppers to any meal to cool you down on a hot day.

Global Warming?
Can a heat wave be attributed to global warming? That’s a sticky question. Global warming is climate; a heat wave is weather. The basic difference is time. Climate is long-term averages of weather, while weather is what’s outside right now. Some scientists believe global warming will change prevailing weather patterns to cause events such as heat waves, stronger hurricanes and even an extra snowy winter like the one just past. So the answer is maybe and maybe not. Scientists are studying both climate and weather trying to find answers. In the meantime, stay cool!

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