More than 40 million people in the American South were under an excessive heat warning on Saturday — the most severe category for heat conditions — as temperatures across the Gulf Coast and parts of the Southwest soared to record-breaking levels and were expected to remain high through early next week.
The warnings reached as far north as Southern Illinois and the region surrounding St. Louis, which the National Weather Service said was expected to have its seventh day of heat indexes over 100 degrees.
A heat index factors in humidity — which can make the air feel swampier and more suffocating — to determine how hot it really feels even at a deceptively lower air temperature.
“Extreme heat and abnormally high overnight temperatures will persist in the South” over the weekend, forecasters with the Weather Prediction Center said early on Saturday morning, adding that “widespread record-high and -low temperatures are likely to be tied or broken across the Gulf Coast.”
Another 39 million people were under a heat advisory on Saturday in parts of the Southeast and Pacific Northwest.
Forecasters warned residents that they should “not underestimate” the health risks of extreme heat, which can result in serious illness or death.
The heat index in the New Orleans region is also expected to reach “oppressive” levels on Saturday, forecasters said, hitting 118 degrees in Covington and 115 in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
A high of 102 in New Orleans and 105 in Baton Rouge were forecast for Saturday, which would break daily temperature records in both cities.
Forecasters in Phoenix said residents could expect a high of 113 on Saturday, adding that “a stretch of record-hot temperatures” will begin on Sunday and continue through early next week, reaching 115 degrees on Monday and Tuesday.
Heat indexes in excess of 110 are also expected on Saturday in Little Rock, Ark.; Macon and Columbus, Ga.; Lafayette, La.; Tulsa, Okla.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Gulfport, Biloxi and Jackson, Miss.
Punishing heat conditions in the South have been relentless this summer, compounded by suffocating humidity and a scarcity of rainfall.
While any single weather event can be hard to tie directly to climate change, scientists have no doubt that heat waves around the world are becoming hotter, more frequent and longer lasting.
The 2018 National Climate Assessment, a major scientific report by 13 federal agencies, noted that the number of hot days was increasing, and that the frequency of heat waves in the United States had jumped to six per year by the 2010s from an average of two per year in the 1960s.
The season for heat waves was also now 45 days longer than it was in the 1960s, according to the report.