Extreme Temperature Diary- Friday June 28th, 2024/Main Topic: How Do You Picture a Heat Wave?

How do you picture a heat wave? » Yale Climate Connections

How do you picture a heat wave?

From beaches to morgues, illustrating a heat-wave story is riddled with challenges.

Bob Henson


It’s never easy to capture the feeling and the impact of a dayslong stretch of intense heat in photographs. Heat waves often spawn or exacerbate other weather disasters — wildfires and crop-snuffing drought in particular — and those are much easier to capture visually. But as Earth’s climate keeps warming from human activity, the direct effects of intense heat on human bodies are gaining ever more attention, and these effects are devilishly difficult to convey in a photo.

The long-simmering challenge of illustrating heat waves in news stories came to a boil again late this spring, as major heat episodes took many hundreds of lives in multiple corners of the world. In a Substack post on June 20, the eminent writer and climate activist Bill McKibben lit into “lazy” photo editors. McKibben called out the New York Times for a tranquil, people-lolling-on-the-grass photo that accompanied a recent roundup of global heat disasters. He added:

Over the last few years numerous professions have worked hard to get more serious about the crisis we’re in — even weather people, who have increasingly taken to telling the truth (though not always with happy results). The men and women who pick images for stories are still stuck back in some 1950s notion of a heat wave, when they were not as hot, came less frequently, and resulted in people going to the beach, not the hospital. Pictures matter: if every story about a war was decorated entirely with pictures of people getting medals, we might have even more wars than we do.

McKibben’s valid point notwithstanding, the problems with illustrating heat waves aren’t easy to fix, for multiple reasons. Especially at city and regional news outlets, producers and editors want fresh, timely, local images whenever possible. Stock photos of people in heat waves don’t fill this particular need, and it can be surprisingly tough to find photos that do.

For years, the group Covering Climate Now has urged journalists and photo editors to do better when they report on heat waves. The group recently posted an excellent guide with tools for reporting on this summer’s extreme heat, including multiple modes of bringing in crucial context. But even this well-crafted guide doesn’t offer specific tips on how best to put a photographic spin on a heat wave.

Plenty of photos are routinely gathered from other weather-related catastrophes with strong climate-change links, such as hurricanes and wildfires. That’s largely because such disasters often produce catastrophic damage that leads to death and injury, so it’s a simple matter to use dramatic damage photos as a proxy for human impacts.

The worst heat waves are more like neutron bombs: They kill people while leaving buildings standing. And most of the deaths occur beyond the gaze of observers, including photographers.

The lawn of the newly completed Nebraska State Capitol provided a resting place for Lincoln residents trying to escape the heat in July 1936, near the peak of the 1930s Dust Bowl. During that decade, the human influence of over-plowed, denuded landscapes intensified the effects of a multiyear drought across vast parts of the central United States, leading to many heat records that remain in place today. Lincoln’s hottest daily minimum on record and its all-time high both occurred on July 25, 1936, with 91°F and 115°F, respectively. (Image credit: History Nebraska Collections)

The solitary experience of heat illness

In his classic book “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” which chronicles the horrific heat event in July 1995 that killed more than 700 people, Eric Klinenberg memorably explored the pathos of the event. Many of the victims died in apartments without air conditioning, or with AC turned off to save money, and with windows closed or locked. Klinenberg told me: “If you look closely at the police reports, or the medical autopsies, they’re just horrific. These are isolated, lonely, painful deaths.”

It may be impossible for any picture to distill that agonizing experience as strongly as words can. Indeed, there are surprisingly few photos at wire services or history archives that deliver a full sense of what happened in that awful Chicago summer.

In my book “The Rough Guide to Climate Change” (now “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change”), I went with a wire-service photo of a bagged body being moved toward a refrigerated truck, similar to the one above. Grim, to be sure, but it showed both a victim and a responder and thus helped convey the human reverberations of the event.

In recent years, perhaps because of a higher priority on reader sensitivity and subject privacy — especially in the realm of health — such photos of body bags and morgues are rarely used.

Sadly, and tellingly, some of the most compelling photos of Americans truly suffering in heat waves have been of people without housing being assisted or taken to shelter. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, close to half the documented heat deaths in recent years have been among unhoused residents.

Read: For unhoused people in America’s hottest large city, heat waves are a merciless killer

The growth in municipal cooling centers is one of the great successes in U.S. heat-wave response over the last 20 years. Yet timely photos from cooling centers don’t seem to make the news often. Maybe it’s because such centers, which basically consist of large groups of people resting in an air-conditioned space, don’t scream “heat impacts” at first glance. And privacy may again be a factor.

Life may be a beach, but what’s a heat wave?

It’s indeed a timeworn choice — and granted, sometimes a lazy one — to show people at the pool or the beach when covering the local or regional impacts of a heat wave. The irony is that splashing in a large body of water is a perfectly valid way to adapt to intense heat. It’s also one of the few heat-coping mechanisms that are out in the open and easy to capture in a photo or video.

Though there’s some obvious privilege in being able to find your heat relief while poolside or beachside, it’s hardly an activity that’s limited only to wealthy folks. In many urban areas, there’s a longtime parallel: fire hydrants being turned on to provide heat relief for those who can’t get to a body of water.

So even if a beach or pool photo seems off-key or weirdly upbeat when accompanying a heat-wave story, it’s still a legitimate part of what’s happening. Indeed, there are plenty of ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change that can be both enjoyable and helpful, from bicycling to growing one’s own food.

What’s crucial is not to expect a lighthearted “day at the beach” photo to carry the full weight of illustrating a truly catastrophic heat wave, much less the invisible forces of climate change that can bolster it.

Imaginative photographers look for people on the street or in an outdoor work setting who may be using water bottles, sun-blocking hats, and other techniques to stay cooler and safer, yet who may still be profusely sweating and visibly uncomfortable. It’s a topic taking on more resonance than ever, as some states, including Florida and Texas, have been clamping down on local requirements designed to ensure worker safety during heat waves.

When air pollution accompanies a heat wave — something that’s often the case, and often a major contributor to deaths and health impacts — a milky sky or a copper-colored sun can help set the scene. The smoke from Canadian wildfires stoked by record heat and drought led to memorable U.S. imagery in the late spring and summer of 2023.

Cleverly designed graphs and charts can also add variety to heat-wave coverage while bringing home important science points. Climate Central, a partner of Yale Climate Connections, caters to broadcast meteorologists and other communicators with a wide array of lively, scientifically vetted graphics.

The average daily low temperature in Phoenix, Arizona, during the summer months of July through August has climbed almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, from just above 78°F to around 84°F. Hot nights are among the most dangerous aspects of a multi-day heat wave, as they give vulnerable people little chance to cool down. (Image credit: Climate Central)

Making a visceral experience more visible

How we picture weather extremes in a changing climate is a hugely important topic of conversation, and it’s good to be giving heat waves some careful thought in that context. This is especially the case given the outsized and increasing threat that intensifying heat (including “humid heat”) poses to human health.

The thick, stifling atmosphere of a heat wave may never lend itself to mind-blowing photography. But given the resources and opportunity, talented photographers can still find ways to show, or at least imply, the misery and danger that a heat wave brings. And skilled editors can do their best to incorporate imagery from across the full spectrum of heat-wave effects.

That might even include the occasional beach photo — as long as it’s made clear through accompanying images, and in the narrative or captions, that not everyone gets to cavort in the sun when the heat hits.

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Bob Henson’s How Do You Picture a Heat Wave? was first published on Yale Climate Connections, a program of the Yale School of the Environment, available at: http://yaleclimateconnections.org. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.5).

Bob Henson


Bob Henson is a meteorologist and journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. He has written on weather and climate for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Weather Underground, and many freelance… More by Bob Henson

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