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People on Folsom Lake in Granite Bay, California, U.S., June 16, 2021. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The prolonged and widespread heat wave in the West, along with the region's increasingly severe drought, is a sign of how climate change has already tilted the odds in favor of such extremes, studies show.

Why it matters: The rapidly growing Southwest, in particular, is also the nation's fastest-warming region. The combination of heat and drought could lead to a repeat, or even eclipse, the severity of 2020's wildfire season in California and other states.

State of play: Temperatures are likely to climb well into the triple digits across most of California through the weekend, and in a half-dozen Western states.

  • Records will keep falling. By the end of this particular heat wave, it's likely that they will tally in the hundreds, with several all-time temperature records tied or broken well before what is typically the hottest time of year.

The other side: While the West is dealing with record heat and drought, the eastern U.S. will see the opposite problem -- too much water, as a tropical depression or possibly a named storm, to be called "Claudette," comes ashore along the Gulf Coast.

By the numbers:

  • Tucson, Arizona, on Thursday set a record daily high temperature of 111°F, which was the sixth straight day with a high temperature above 110°F, tied for the most on record. That milestone is likely to fall on Friday.
  • Phoenix, Arizona, saw a high temperature of 118°F on Thursday, its fifth straight day at or above 110°F.
  • Death Valley, California, hit 128°F on Thursday, a degree short of its all-time record for June.
  • Palm Springs, California, hit 123°F Thursday, tying its all-time temperature record. The city has only reached that sizzling point three other times in recorded history, but they were in the typically hotter months of July and August.
  • Las Vegas reached 116°F on Wednesday, just 1°F shy of tying its all-time warmest temperature on record.
  • Salt Lake City, Billings, Montana, and Laramie, Wyoming, matched their highest temperatures observed at any time of year on Tuesday.

Threat level: The California ISO, which operates the state's electrical grid, is asking residents to conserve power amid expected spikes in demand.

  • The 128°F high temperature Thursday in Death Valley, reached a level never seen prior to June 29, according to Meteo France meteorologist Etienne Kapikian. It was just 1°F shy of the location's hottest temperature on record during June.
  • The National Weather Service is predicting a "critical fire risk" in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah Friday, with the risk of fires starting in other states due to dry lightning ignitions from thunderstorms that fail to deliver much rain to the parched landscape.
A tweet previously embedded here has been deleted or was tweeted from an account that has been suspended or deleted.

Context: Human-caused climate change already makes present-day heatwaves about 3°F to 5°F hotter than they otherwise would be, according to climate scientist Michael Wehner of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  • Numerous studies also tie the ongoing drought in the West to human-caused climate change, both due to increasing temperatures, which enhances evaporation, as well as shifting weather patterns that boost the odds of such events.

The big picture: A study published Thursday in Nature Climate Change found that in the Southwest, there's increasing overlap between extreme heat and very dry days, and that soil moisture conditions during June play a particular important role in this trend.

  • It follows research published last year showing that extreme heat events are getting progressively drier across the Lower 48 states as the climate warms overall. That's bad news for managing wildfires, which thrive during hot, dry and windy days.
  • A study published in late May found that high elevation forests in the West are burning more frequently and severely than they used to, which the researchers attributed in large part to shifting climate conditions.

What to watch: At the same time as brutal heat and drought is affecting the West, the East will be experiencing the opposite problem -- too much water.

A brewing tropical weather system, which may earn the name Tropical Storm Claudette prior to making landfall in coastal Louisiana this weekend, is forecast to dump between 10 and 15 inches or more of rain along the Gulf Coast.

  • Once it makes landfall, the storm will quickly lose any strong winds associated with it, but it could be a prolific rainmaking as it moves northward toward the Mid-Atlantic.
  • Flash flooding is likely on Saturday across Mississippi, parts of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and extending into North Carolina by Sunday.

Go deeper

For FEMA head, trip to wildfire regions reaffirms drive to address climate change

A firefighter crew from New Mexico walks along a path in the mountains west of Paisley, Oregon on July 23, 2021. Photo: Maranie Staab/Bloomberg via Getty Images

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell's first trip out West since being confirmed in April reinforced her view that the agency must tackle climate change's influence on disasters, such as wildfires and droughts.

Why it matters: FEMA is the lead agency for providing aid to states hit hard by ongoing fires, already approving 19 Fire Management Assistance Grants. The trip illustrated the present-day impacts of climate change, with the twin challenges of fires and drought plainly evident, she told Axios.

Updated Jul 29, 2021 - Science

Midwest under threat from hurricane-force winds in severe storm system

Photo: NOAA

Organizers in Wisconsin postponed the biggest air show in the U.S. as a severe storm system threatened the Midwest with potentially hurricane-force winds, tornados, hail and thunderstorms overnight.

Threat level: More than 5.9 million people could be affected by the storm system — which saw the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, postpone events due to be held Wednesday until the following evening amid the threat of 90 mph winds.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Jul 29, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Americans have been moving where the water isn't

Urban sprawl in Henderson, Nevada, outside of Las Vegas. Photo: David McNew/Getty Image

Even as population growth in the U.S. as a whole slows down, numbers are still rising in the Southwest and Mountain West.

  • One problem: many of these communities are among the most drought-prone in the country, and are likely to get even drier.