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Computer model projection for temperature departures from average on July 28, 2021. (WeatherBell.com)

A significant and far-reaching heat wave is poised to build across much of the continental U.S. during the next few weeks, and it could be the most expansive in the country so far during this unusually hot summer, aggravating drought and wildfires.

The big picture: Forests across the West are already burning at a scope and intensity that's unusual for this time of year. Drought data released Thursday showed that what is already the worst Western drought so far this century is only intensifying. Any additional heat will aggravate an already dire situation.

  • The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 65.4% of the Western U.S. is in "extreme" to "exceptional" drought conditions, the two worst categories on the scale, up from 52.8% on June 1.
  • The only modest relief in sight is for parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, where monsoonal moisture will bring rounds of thunderstorms. These storms could also ignite new fires, though, by delivering lightning but little rain in some areas.

Driving the news: A "heat dome," which is an area of high pressure aloft that helps to lock in place hot, dry weather, will form this weekend over the West and eventually migrate to a position across the Central Plains.

  • Computer models show temperatures climbing to 10°F to 15°F or higher above average for this time of year across the affected areas.
  • That may not sound like a major event, but late July is just past what is typically the hottest time of the year, which means temperatures will easily reach the triple digits from portions of the Pacific Northwest to the Plains, parts of the Midwest and Eastern U.S. (with the exception of the Northeast).

What's next: The heat will first build in the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West on Monday and expand east into Tuesday and Wednesday, when the heat dome will be be broadly centered over Colorado and the adjacent Plains states.

  • Above average temperatures are likely by Thursday from coast-to-coast, with the hottest conditions compared to average occurring in the Plains and Midwest, where some areas could see anomalies of 20°F above average.
  • Cities such as Des Moines, Minneapolis and Chicago will be in the path of the heat wave by the middle of next week.
Temperature outlook from the Climate Prediction Center for July 28 to August 1. (NOAA)

How it works: While heat waves are a normal feature in the summertime, climate change from human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases is increasing their intensity, duration and frequency.

  • For example, scientists concluded that the Pacific Northwest heat wave, which broke all-time heat records in dozens of locations — including Seattle and Portland at 108°F and 115°F, respectively — was so severe it was "virtually impossible" in the absence of global warming.
  • This event will be the fifth distinct heat wave the U.S. will have seen so far this summer.

Context: Model projections are showing the heat won't fade quickly, but could stick around for much of August as weather patterns pile up like cars on the Washington Beltway, going nowhere fast.

  • Stuck weather patterns featuring strong areas of high pressure aloft have been to blame for several deadly extreme weather events this summer, including the Pacific Northwest heat wave that is thought to have killed hundreds in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the Central Europe floods that have killed at least 200.
  • In much of the West, heat and drought will continue to feed off each other in a vicious cycle, with the hot temperatures drying soils further — allowing more incoming solar radiation to go directly into heating the air.

The intrigue: Environmental groups are hoping the extreme weather events this summer will move the needle on legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bolstering the resilience of American infrastructure.

  • An event held Thursday by the environmental groups Climate Power and the League of Conservation Voters brought a diverse group of people to Capitol Hill to convey that sense of urgency.
  • Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), who chose WGN-TV chief meteorologist Tom Skilling to speak at the event, told Axios on Thursday that the stories he's hearing from this summer are sobering, and that they underscore the need for the Senate to "do their job."
  • "People are now getting it because it's tangible and they can't say, 'well this is just a crazy scientific theory and prediction but I don't think it's going to happen,'" Casten told Axios.

Go deeper

Updated Sep 22, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on bold climate commitments

On Wednesday, September 22nd, Axios co-founder Mike Allen and energy reporter Ben Geman hosted a virtual conversation on the innovative approaches climate leaders are undertaking to reshape standards for sustainability initiatives in 2022 and beyond, featuring White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp.

Gina McCarthy explained the Biden administration’s recent environmental priorities, the importance of mobilizing different communities to fight climate change, and how the White House is incentivizing private industries to reduce their emissions.   

  • On addressing extreme heat problems: "I think everybody’s beginning to understand as the President tours the sites of wildfires and flooding and other really big challenges like drought, there’s this silent killer for climate change that’s called excess heat, that really doesn’t get enough attention."
  • On cross-agency collaboration on climate change at a federal level: “It’s an exciting moment where people across the federal government are working together in ways they have never done before, not just to tackle wildfires and droughts and flooding and heat stress, but also to tackle the challenge of how we motivate our business sector and send them all the signals you would want us to send that shows that President Biden is committed to achieving net zero in 2050, and knows that this decade is a decisive decade.”

Fred Krupp highlighted how companies must be held accountable to pledges to reduce their emissions, how some corporations are breaking with lobby associations to become more vocal about climate change (and others are not), and how he believes debates surrounding the infrastructure bill will play out in the near future. 

  • On how corporate lobbying has fallen short: “Right now, we don’t see enough corporations lobbying on behalf of the climate sections of the reconciliation bill. This bill that’s pending in Congress is our once in a decade opportunity to get something done on climate.” 
  • On public support for the infrastructure bill: “I see an enormous amount of support in the American public for moving ahead with a sort of clean energy economy that are going to create tremendous numbers of jobs, clean the air, make people healthier.” 

Axios VP of Communications Yolanda Brignoni hosted a View from the Top segment with GE’s Chief Sustainability Officer Roger Martella, who discussed how GE is following through on their ESG goals by investing in sustainable energy technologies. 

  • “We create some of the most technically complex and critical technologies the world needs, and we’re focused today on innovating these technologies on a path to decarbonization.” 

Thank you GE for sponsoring this event.

Newsom signs $15 billion package to fight climate change

Gov. Gavin Newsom Photo: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $15 billion climate package on Thursday as California wildfires threaten more sequoias at Sequoia National Park.

Why it matters: The package is the largest such investment in California history as drought conditions have worsened across the state and led to numerous wildfires. More than 1.9 million acres have burned across the state this year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, including over 220,000 in the Caldor fire last month.

Stock buybacks boom as corporate cash piles grow

The Delta variant is keeping more companies cautious about how to invest the mountains of cash they have at their disposal. That hesitancy has led, in part, to corporate spending on stock buybacks outpacing capital expenditures this year. 

Why it matters: Companies hoarded cash and raised prices over the past year — leaving them with a lot of money and decisions about what to do with it.