Climate change will magnify extreme heat. Here's how that could impact Southern California

Parts of SoCal could see double the number of 100-degree days in 30 years.

Saturday, August 19, 2023
Climate change will magnify extreme heat in SoCal
Parts of Southern California could see double the number of 100-degree days in the next 30 years. Here's how that will impact frontline workers and vulnerable populations.

SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. (KABC) -- Loading and unloading planes at the Amazon Air Hub in San Bernardino is "the most unique job" Cynthia Ayala has ever had.

"I get to be the last person to see the pilot and send that plane off. That's really cool," she said, adding that she has met a lot of people from different backgrounds, from 19-year-old coworkers to retired firefighters in their 60s.

But she said the job is labor intensive.

"We're moving containers that weigh up to 3,500 pounds with two people. And it's on a rolling floor, but it's still really heavy," she said.

Last summer, Ayala said she was working in the sun for hours. Then she started seeing stars.

"By the time I had loaded the aircraft ... I only had just enough time to go park my machine," she said, adding that her coworker gave her some electrolytes to recover.

While working outside in the often oppressive heat in the Inland Empire, the only shade Ayala and her coworkers get is from the planes themselves. But Ayala said those can also give off heat.

The tarmac is made of concrete, which experts said can raise temperatures by up to about 20 degrees.

And the containers they move are made of metal, Ayala said.

"They also sit there for a couple hours. So when we're near them, it gets really hot," she said.

Climate change is going to exacerbate extreme heat conditions

While they work outside, the tarmac workers are covered by CAL/OSHA standards for heat illness prevention in outdoor workplaces.

There are currently no comparable standards for indoor workplaces outside of regular injury and illness prevention standards.

During the 2022 heat wave, Amazon Air employees took thermometers to work and recorded highs of 89 degrees inside the warehouse, 96 degrees inside planes and trailers and a high of 121 on the tarmac.

Eyewitness News reached out to Amazon. They said their own readings say temperatures inside have never exceeded 78 degrees.

The Amazon Air Hub operates out of the San Bernardino International Airport. It's in an area that experiences an annual average of just under two weeks of triple-digit temperatures.

Experts at the climate risk nonprofit, First Street Foundation, predict that the average will jump to nearly one month in the next 30 years.

Weathering Tomorrow: See the impact of climate change-induced heat, flood, wildfire and wind where you live

There will likely be a similar increase or more in most of the Inland Empire.

According to the National Weather Service, days where the outdoor heat index exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit are considered "extreme heat days," but if the heat index exceeds 103 degrees, they become "dangerous heat days," where extended time outdoors could lead to serious health impacts.

MAP: How many more days above 100 degrees?

The map below shows how many more 100-degree days there will be in 2050 compared to today. The darker red areas have a larger increase. Click on an area for more, and use the magnifying glass in the top left corner to search for your address.

Source: First Street Foundation

Extreme heat is a health hazard, but not everyone is impacted equally

According to Peter Elwin, the head of food and land use at climate think-tank, Planet Tracker, "even if you're a sort of a strong, healthy person, your body is focused on cooling."

"So there are a lot of other things it can't do. One of the basic things it can't do is think very well," he said.

Confusion, along with symptoms like nausea, increased pulse and fainting can all be signs of heat stroke, which can be fatal.

Marta Segura, the Chief Heat Officer for the city of Los Angeles, said the risks are "greater in low-income communities." She said this is due to increased rates of chronic illness and a lack of resources to stay cool and hydrated in low-income communities.

"Everything that we want the community to have is lacking in most of those communities. So it's not surprising that then we have more adverse health outcomes during heat season there," Segura said.

An ABC7 analysis of data from UCLA's heat maps shows people who live in Southern California zip codes where the annual income is less than $60,000 are two times as likely to visit the emergency room for a heat-related problem compared to those making more than $120,000 or more.

A similar pattern is true for those who live in zip codes with a majority people of color. Excess heat-related E.R. visits per 10,000 people are at double the rate in zip codes with 75% or more people of color compared to zip codes with less than 25% people of color.

Deogracia Cornelio is the education director for the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, an organization that helps inform and advocate for and with warehouse workers.

High heat compounds with the fast pace, heavy workloads and dangerous machines that make warehouses high-hazard workplaces, Cornelio said.

Elwin from Planet Tracker said improving working conditions can also improve a business's bottom line.

If more workers suffer heat illness, production slows - which can interrupt supply chains.

"Your competitor down the road may either have prepared better or might just be lucky where their supply chain is situated, and they're making money when you're not. So the economic effects can be quite severe," Elwin said.

Air conditioning at home is important too

Experts say even if you can get through the day, if you don't have a way to cool off after work you could still be in danger.

Like most homes in the Inland Empire, Ayala's apartment has at least a small air conditioning unit, she said.

But there are still nearly 60,000 homes in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that don't have air conditioning, according to Census data. Electricity prices can jump substantially during some heatwaves.

At 27 years old, Ayala will be around to see more and more climate-crisis-induced hot days.

"I just feel like things are even more at risk. And I feel like all the fighting that we have to do right only going to counteract or counterbalance all of the damage and environmental crisis that we're in right now," she said.

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson, Maureen Lynch Vogel said:

"Our heat-related safety protocols are robust and often exceed industry standards and federal OSHA guidance. Amazon is one of only a few companies in the industry to have installed climate control systems in our fulfillment centers and at every air hub, including KSBD [San Bernardino]. Our climate control and building management systems measure indoor temperatures and heat index, and our safety professionals monitor these systems so they can take extra steps if needed. Aside from these state-of-the-art systems, our sites include high-volume, low speed industrial fans to provide additional cooling and every employee is trained on the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and the importance of hydration and regular breaks."

The company also listed several mitigation efforts at the San Bernardino hub specifically, such as cooling towels, stations with ice, water, fruit and electrolytes, and extra breaks.

Maia Rosenfeld and Maggie Green contributed to this report.