Record-breaking temperatures are an incomplete benchmark for understanding the effects of scorching heat, argues Ladd Keith.

In many ways Phoenix, Arizona has become exhibit A for extreme heat, especially in the Southwest. The city set a record on July 18, reaching 19 consecutive days with high temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service. The count continued to rise—Phoenix has now entered its third week of temperatures above 110.

But Phoenix is far from the only city dealing with the effects of this year’s extreme heat, says Keith, an assistant professor of planning and sustainable built environments in the University of Arizona College of Planning, Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

He warns against emphasizing Phoenix as “the sole place that heat is impacting” and points to the globe’s four “heat domes,” or weather systems that trap heat for extended periods, currently scorching areas in North America, Europe, and Asia.

“A lot of things we’re seeing with the heat wave in the Southwest are being mirrored in places across the world, and we’re seeing a lot of similar temperature records being broken and impacts outside the United States,” says Keith, who is also a faculty research associate at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.

Keith is the lead University of Arizona researcher on a project funded by the US Department of Energy to study the impact of climate change on Arizona’s urban areas. The project, called the Southwest Urban Corridor Integrated Field Laboratory, also includes researchers from Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. He also contributed to a new guide for journalists on how to cover heat waves and climate change.

Here, Keith explains what makes this year’s heat wave different, how government agencies have begun prioritizing heat mitigation and management efforts, and why record-breaking temperatures alone are an incomplete benchmark for understanding extreme heat:

Increasing temperatures aren’t a new phenomenon, especially in the Southwest. But this year feels different, considering that the World Meteorological Organization predicted in May that the world would set temperature records, and now much of it has. Is it really different this year?

Yes, it’s due to the gradual increases from climate change over time, but also the El Niño (climate pattern) is really amplifying some of those temperatures this summer into record-breaking territory. That’s a normal pattern in the climate system associated with warmer waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean and is associated with higher temperatures in the Southwest.

Like you said, this has been predicted not only through climate science for decades that these types of events would happen, but also the forecasts for the year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were very accurate as far as the outlooks for increased temperatures this summer. So, this is not surprising, but certainly concerning.

Read the full article about extreme heat by Kyle Mittan at Futurity.