In Cantua, a small town deep within California’s farming heartland, the heat had always been a part of life. We can do nothing against it,” said Julia Mendoza, who’s lived in this town for 27 years. But lately, she says, the searing temperatures are almost unlivable.
By midday on Thursday, the first day of a protracted, extreme heatwave in California’s central valley, the country roads were sizzling with heat. A young volunteer with a local environmental justice nonprofit who had come to check in on the neighborhood collapsed on the sidewalk, her face bright red and damp. Construction crews working nearby quickly swept her into an air-conditioned car and handed her a cold bottle of water.
¡Mira, el calor!” gasped Mendoza as she rushed over from her front porch. Arcelia Luna, her friend and neighbor shook her head as she poured a bottle of refrigerated water over the head and body of the two-year-old boy she was watching.
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Much of California are suffering through record-breaking temperatures, just two weeks after a deadly heat dome blistered the Pacific north-west. Across the west, 28 million Americans will have endured triple-digit heat this week. While coastal regions, including the Bay Area, will have been spared by cool marine air, California’s central valley – the state’s sprawling, agricultural innards – will have broiled.
The National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning” for the central valley from Thursday through Monday. And by mid-morning on Thursday, asphalt and concrete-paved Fresno began shimmering with heat. There was no breeze to rustle the rows and rows of almond and pistachio trees that radiated for miles and miles out of the city. The occasional irrigation canal melded into the heat mirage that radiated off the country roads.
Global heating is driving stronger, longer heatwaves in the region, said Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Crops sit amid a dry landscape near Fresno, California. Blistering temperatures have hit the region this week.
Crops sit amid a dry landscape near Fresno, California. Blistering temperatures have hit the region this week. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP
Researchers have been warning of such extreme heatwaves for decades, he said, but the barrage of heat surges that California and the western US have been alarming, he said. Temperature records are being broken earlier than expected or predicted.
We are breaking temperature records this summer. And are going to keep breaking temperature records, as long as we keep burning fossil fuels,” said Ortiz, who lives in the Valley. It’s infuriating, it’s tiring and it’s emotionally draining to see.”
The vicious cycle of the climate crisis has merged with a vicious cycle of inequity in the region. Racial disparities in access to shade and air conditioning are increasingly becoming dangerous, even deadly.
Here, changing weather patterns have wrought not only periods of extreme heat, but also an extended drought – two phenomena that feed into each other. The heat has caused water reserves to evaporate too quickly, drying out the reservoirs that feed the region’s $50b agricultural industry. With scarcely any moisture left in the ground, the desiccated landscape heats up like a hot plate, amplifying the scorching ambient temperatures.
On hot weeks like this one, Mendoza and a group of other women who live in the area gather on her front porch, seated in a circle on folding chairs under a nylon tent. The group has been campaigning to build an air-conditioned community center or a small park with trees where people can go to stay cool during what have become increasingly frequent bouts of extreme heat.
In Cantua Creek, and throughout the valley, the over-pumping of groundwater has led to a concentrating of nitrates from pesticides, fertilizer and dairy waste runoff from farms and naturally occurring arsenic. Mendoza and her neighbors aren’t able to drink the water from their taps, so trucks lug jugs of potable water to them each day. We don’t want anything big, you know,” Mendoza said. Just somewhere to stay cool. And clean water.”
On days like this,” she added, I just want to be able to shower in tranquility”.
Hotter, drier conditions also mean harder, and less work for the region’s hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. This week, Jesús Zuñiga has been up at 3am, to get to the fields by 5am. I pick tomatoes – which is one of the toughest jobs out here,” he said, showing off the thick calluses that have developed on his hands. For hours each day, the harsh valley sun bears down on his back as he hunches over the tomato vines. Once he’s collected 50 pounds of fruit, he sprints down the neat, irrigated rows, to dump buckets full of the fruit onto trucks. His harvest ends up in grocery stores as well as fast food restaurant chains.