Summer nights may never be the same again

The summers of my Midwestern childhood were sticky hot. During the day, backyard sprinklers, Popsicles and squirt gun battles helped us cool off. At night, we ran window fans and hoped for cooler air.

But those summer nights seem idyllic compared with the extraordinary heat waves that people around the world are suffering through now. This summer, thousands of new records have been set not just for daily high temperatures, but also for warmest overnight lows. Hot nights are dangerous because they rob people of the chance to cool down before the next sweltering day.

Scientists have long known that prolonged heat waves are more deadly than a short blast. New research suggests that people may not be able to endure as much heat as once thought, earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling reports in this issue. And those data come from young, healthy adults who were subjected to high heat for 1.5 to two hours in laboratory conditions. Older people, children and people with medical conditions most likely face higher risks.

A lot of factors go into figuring out how dangerous heat is to humans, Gramling reports, including humidity, whether high heat is unusual for that location, as in the Pacific Northwest, and if the heat wave comes earlier in summer, before people have time to acclimate. These days, weather reports saying “It’s gonna be hot out there” often aren’t enough to help people understand the risk and protect themselves.

There’s no standard definition for when a heat wave becomes life-threatening. Scientists around the world are working on ways to standardize warnings — and name heat waves like we do hurricanes (SN: 9/12/20, p. 4). Those efforts, experts hope, will make it easier for people to know what they’re up against, and prepare.

In this issue, we also explore how gathering data in one field of science can unexpectedly deliver insights about a completely different question. In this case, researchers studying how pollution affects coral reefs off Puerto Rico installed underwater sensors a few months before Hurricane Maria roared through in September 2017. The team figured the equipment was destroyed, freelance writer Martin J. Kernan reports. But not only did the instruments survive, they also revealed unexpected shifts in water flow and temperature that fueled the intensity of the storm.

And last month, a group of journalists from Latin America visited Science News as part of an exchange program. They were intensely interested in how we cover climate change, including how we get readers engaged in a subject that can seem both overwhelming and dauntingly technical. Gramling’s and Kernan’s articles are great examples of how we do it. Climate change now touches just about every beat our journalists cover, just as it touches all of our lives. If you’re not intrigued by how ocean currents influence hurricanes, you may enjoy learning about six foods that may become more popular as the planet warms (SN: 5/7/22 & 5/21/22, p. 34).

We also cover climate change and potential solutions through our Science News Explores website and new print magazine for readers ages 9 and up. We’ll keep them — and us more seasoned readers — up to speed on the latest innovative ideas that aim to ensure a brighter future for us all.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.