Hotter summers could be a part of Washington’s future

July 5, 2012

As relentless heat continues to pulverize Washington, the conversation has evolved from when will it end to what if it never does?

Are unbroken weeks of sweltering weather becoming the norm rather than the exception?

The answer to the first question is simple: Yes, it will end. Probably by Monday.

The answer to the second, however, is a little more complicated.

Call it a qualified yes.

“Trying to wrap an analysis around it in real time is like trying to diagnose a car wreck as the cars are still spinning,” said Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. “But we had record heat for the summer season on the Eastern Seaboard in 2010. We had not just record heat, but all-time record heat, in the summer season in 2011. And then you throw that on top of this [mild] winter and spring and the year to date so far, it’s very consistent with what we’d expect in a warming world.”

Nothing dreadfully dramatic is taking place — the seasons are not about to give way to an endless summer.

Heat-trapping greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere may be contributing to unusually hot and long heat waves — the kind of events climate scientists have long warned will become more common. Many anticipate a steady trend of ever-hotter average temperatures as human activity generates more and more carbon pollution.

To some, the numbers recorded this month and in recent years fit together to suggest a balmy future.

“We had a warm winter, a cold spring and now a real hot summer,” said Jessica Miller, 21, a visitor from Ohio, as she sat on a bench beneath the trees in Lafayette Square. “I think the overall weather patterns are changing.”

Another visitor, who sat nearby just across from the White House, shared a similar view.

“I think it’s a natural changing of the Earth’s average temperatures,” said Joe Kaufman, a Pennsylvanian who had just walked over from Georgetown.

Arndt said he expects data for the first half of this year will show that it was the warmest six months on record. Experts predict that average temperatures will rise by 3 to 5 degrees by mid-century and by 6 to 10 degrees by the end of the century.

If that worst prediction comes true, 98 degrees will become the new normal at this time of year in Washington 88 years from now.

Will every passing year till then break records?

“Not so much record-breaking every year,” Arndt said. “But we’ll break records on the warm end more often than on the cold end, that’s for sure. As we continue to warm, we will be flirting with warm records much more than with cold records, and that’s what’s played out over much of the last few years.”

If the present is our future, it may be sizzling. The current heat wave has had eight consecutive days of 95-degree weather. The temperature may reach 106 on Saturday, and the first break will come Monday, when a few days of more seasonable highs in the upper 80s are expected.

The hot streak began June 28 and peaked the next day with a 104-degree record-breaker, the hottest temperature ever recorded here in June. That broke a record of 102 set in 1874 and matched in June 2011.

“When you break an all-time monthly record, that’s significant,” said Steve Zubrick of the National Weather Service office in Sterling.

He said the temperature drop expected early next week — probably after thunderstorms Sunday — won’t put an end to the hot summer.

“The next three months’ forecast is for above-normal temperatures,” Zubrick said.

Air conditioning and lights have returned for most of the hundreds of thousands of people who lost power after Friday’s storm.

As of 10 p.m. Thursday, 15,319 were still blacked out in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the District and Northern Virginia. About 9,100 of them were in Montgomery.

In the District, 1,716 were powerless, and the city’s Public Service Commission said it would review Pepco’s performance in restoring electricity for its customers.

Residents without power continue to voice concerns over what some have called the utilities’ slow or confusing response.

Nathan Blain, who lives on Irvington Avenue in Bethesda, said he was still without power Thursday morning, even though he had been informed by Pepco that it had been restored. He said Pepco had reported that there were crews “on the ground,” but he hadn’t seen any in his neighborhood.

Heitzi Epstein said she has run around in circles for days, only to end up in the same place — with a wire-entangled tree leaning on the roof of her Bethesda home and no one willing to touch it.

Part of a neighbor’s tree fell on Epstein’s roof, so she did what anyone else would: She called her insurance company and a tree removal service, figuring that would resolve the problem.

On Monday, a tree-removal company arrived, but a worker said the company couldn’t help because the tree was touching the power line. He suggested that Epstein call Pepco.

On Tuesday, a contractor with Pepco came to assess the situation and determined that it should fall to the power company to fix.

On Wednesday, a Pepco employee arrived and said the company could not remove the tree because it was on private property.

“It really is this through-the-looking-glass kind of feeling,” Epstein, 53, said. “No one will touch this thing. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to have thunderstorms tonight with wind, and if that wind pushes this branch a little to the right, it will pull my line down. It’s a fire hazard.”

Epstein said that everyone she has dealt with has been “extraordinarily nice” but that no one can give her any clear answers or help.

On Thursday, she felt a brief glimmer of hope when a Pepco truck pulled up to her house. She had called three times and thought, maybe now, workers would solve the problem. Instead, it was the same technician who had told her that Pepco could not go onto private property.

“I said, ‘The next time you come, you better bring flowers,’ ” she said. “They didn’t think it was funny. But if I can keep a sense of humor, they should.”

Jason Samenow, Theresa Vargas and Brian Vastag contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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