You know it's hot when manhole covers are popping off streets in Manhattan like popcorn, and bats the flying kind are leaving their attic hideaways in New England to join humans cooling off on lower floors.
Americans are used to bad-hair days and bare shelves in the fan aisle this time of year. But the heat in recent days, combined with a drought affecting half the United States, is making this stretch of August as uncomfortable as a burlap shirt.
In cities from Boston to Portland, Ore., record-breaking temperatures this week caused some workers to willingly stay at their desks and prompted vacationers to call visitors bureaus in New England looking for places to swim. Anywhere.
"It's crazy, man. This heat is unbelievable," says Daniel Cardona, a construction worker in New York, who on Thursday had been working since 5 a.m. and by 9 a.m. had already soaked through three shirts.
Cities that rarely see the mercury hit 100 degrees or higher, like many in Oregon, are coping with not only sweltering heat, but the effects of ongoing fires as well. Heat records are being shattered all over Oregon it was up to 108 near the California border and as a result wildfires continue to spring up and grow, costing $5 million a day to fight.
Relief is expected to come to some parts of the country by the weekend, but the weather is still keeping meteorologists perhaps the people most loved and hated this time of year on their toes. It's too soon to know where this summer as a whole will fit in the record books. But July already has been noted for warmer-than-normal and drier-than-normal conditions. Nationally, last month was the fifth-warmest July on record. Globally, it was the second-warmest since 1880, when the earliest reliable measurements began.
Easterners may be abuzz with talk of global warming, thanks to the sizzling temperatures this week. But one climate expert says this is business as usual.
"What we're seeing is not all that unusual," says Wayne Higgins, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) in Camp Springs, Md.
A few days of record-breaking highs in New England can make it seem as though odd things are happening with the weather, but this summer has yet to match that of 1980, for example, when temperatures topped 90 degrees in the Washington area for 67 days.
But while high temperatures are dinner-table conversation in many homes, for much of the country the big issue remains drought. Roughly half of the territory in the lower 48 states is experiencing moderate to extreme drought, according to NOAA. Those conditions are likely to continue well into the fall in the Northeast and Northwest, according to the agency's latest seasonal outlook, released yesterday.
Indeed, Dr. Higgins says, drought conditions typified by the lack of a summer monsoon season are the factors that he finds most worrisome.
Agencies are rushing to help those who can't help themselves. In Oregon, The Salvation Army is collecting donated fans to distribute to elderly people and others without air conditioning. Some vacationers have canceled trips due to the smoke and heat.
Even Oregonians trying to escape the heat aren't finding any reprieve. James and Janice Marleau from Portland sit at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and think for a few minutes before climbing the daunting steps. Both like the few dozen other tourists visiting yesterday morning are dressed for successfully beating the heat: shorts, sleeveless T-shirts, and sandals. And carrying more water than cameras.
The Marleaus have been in Washington for three days and have only three more to go. So they can't afford to stop because of the heat "We don't want to miss anything."
They praise Washington for all its water and soda vendors. "We haven't been on a bus yet," says Mr. Marleau, swiping the sweat from his forehead. "We stay in the shade as much as possible, and buy lots and lots of water and soda, which is readily available."
Another capital city visitor, Cyndy Leigh from Redlands, Calif., says her secret to beating the heat is to start early in the morning with outdoor monuments, then visit air-conditioned museums in the afternoon. Her other secret, one that prevents mascara meltdown: "I wear lots of sunscreen and only a little lipstick," she says laughing.
People looking for an answer for this year's hot temperatures need a map and lots of climatic knowledge. In weatherman speak, several broad-scale atmospheric conditions have hit just the right phases to lead to the hot dry spell in the Eastern US. Farther west, large-scale conditions have suppressed the Southwest's summer monsoon season, leading to the driest conditions in Colorado since the 1930s.
But the hot temperatures aren't stopping some from being outside. On Thursday, 9-year-old Lizzie Briasco participated in track and field events at a field in Manhattan. Her mother says she would have kept her home if it had been 100 degrees.
But since it was expected to be only in the low 90s, they decided to come out. "When you consider that to be cooling off, it's quite something," says Michelle Briasco.
Staff writers Peter N. Spotts in Boston, Brad Knickerbocker in Ashland, Ore., Faye Bowers in Washington, and Seth Stern in New York contributed to this report.
CITY TEMP. DATE
Boston 101 Aug. 14
Philadelphia 99 Aug. 14
Portland, Ore. 102 Aug. 13
Concord, N.H. 99 Aug. 13
New York 98 Aug. 13
Ramona, Calif. 101 Aug. 10