“It’s not going to get better” : UNM biologist on climate change, Arizona record heat

The December cooldown is a welcomed reprieve in the Grand Canyon State after Arizonans experienced record heat waves this past summer. 

In 2023, Phoenix reached two grim milestones: a historic 31-day stretch of 110 degrees or higher along with hitting daily highs of 119 degrees on July 20th and 25th – tied for the fourth-hottest days in city history, according to the National Weather Service.

“You know, the, the trend we’re on with climate change, it’s just things are going to get a lot hotter. And the, the periods of, you know, extreme heat are going to last longer,” noted Dr. Blair Wolf, Professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico.

Wolf dispelled notions of climate change being a social construct, citing the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet and influences climate change.

“Historically, pre-industrial times, we had carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere about 280 parts per million (ppm),” Wolf described. “Now it’s over 420 ppm. That’s directly correlated and causative as far as warming goes.”

No stranger to Arizona’s unrelenting heat, Wolf spent a combined 14 years working at Arizona State and the University of Arizona. He said an ongoing trend of increasing temperatures will result in fewer resources for herbivorous animals: as the soil dries out, plants have less moisture for growing.

Additionally, bird populations are at risk during week-long stretches of temperatures exceeding 115, said Wolf, who researches avian biology. 

“Two things can happen: they can either get dehydrated because they can’t get enough water, or they overheat and get heatstroke because water is deplenished, and it’s just too hot for them to cool enough evaporatively,” Wolf stated.

The chance for another ghastly Arizona summer – for birds and humans – is likely.

“It’s not going to get better. This isn’t a cyclic thing where suddenly it’s going to get wet all of a sudden,” Wolf stressed

In 2023, health officials for Maricopa County, Ariz., where Phoenix is located, reported nearly 500 confirmed heat-related deaths, an increase from the 422 fatalities identified in 2022.