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“Astonishing” Heat in Puerto Rico

The heat index in Puerto Rico reached 125 degrees this week.

What’s the heat index?

The heat index is a calculation combining the temperature of the air with the level of humidity to come up with  the apparent temperature — how hot the air feels. This is based on the fact that humans keep cool through sweating and having that moisture evaporate from the skin. With higher levels of moisture in the air, this cooling mechanism doesn’t work as well.

125 degrees is classified as a dangerously high temperature. The National Weather Service posted excessive heat warnings and heat advisories, which warn residents of dangerous heat levels. Heat indices are expected to range from 108 to 110 degrees throughout the week. Residents are warned not to engage in any outdoor activities.

Why is it so hot?

Puerto Rico’s temperature usually ranges from 70 to 90 degrees. Right now, a number of factors are increasing the heat.

A pocket of dust from the Sahara desert is hanging over Puerto Rico right now. A heat dome has also formed, encouraged by warming ocean temperatures. A heat dome is a mass of high pressure that pushes air down and compresses it, heating it up and preventing the formation of clouds. The hot air then rises, expanding the size of the heat dome. El Niño conditions add to the heat, which is exacerbated by climate change.

Consequences of excessive heat

Extreme heat can be dangerous for human health. High temperatures can cause cell damage in the brain, kidney and liver failure, and heatstroke, which can have up to 60% mortality rates. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the most immediate and deadly results of high heat, but extreme temperatures can also worsen respiratory conditions. Puerto Rico already has a higher rate of asthma than the states, and severe heat can make this worse.

Puerto Rico also has a higher preponderance of chronic disease and an aging population, which means that the residents of Puerto Rico are more vulnerable to extreme heat than the overall population of the United States.

Does Puerto Rico’s status affect the heat index?

More than 100,000 residents lost electrical power during this heatwave. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is accustomed to power outages. The normal level of uncertainty of electrical power would not be accepted in any state, and three million residents would have several voting members of Congress to consult with in their search for solutions.

The lack of electricity obviously means that homes and businesses cannot rely on air conditioning. Central air conditioning is in any case rare in Puerto Rico homes, though hotels and other public buildings are likely to have it. Split load or window units are more common in homes…when electricity is available.

The lack of refrigeration in such weather necessarily affects food choices as well. Running water has also been in short supply at various times in the past, especially following natural disasters. Puerto Rico’s fragile infrastructure is a direct consequence of the Island’s political status.

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