Triple-digit-temperatures in Chicago may not be that uncommon in the future as climate change continues to modify weather patterns in the city, and the two scorching days last week demonstrate how heat brings changes to things most take for granted, such as school activities and outdoor cultural programming. 

And in a city where all communities do not have the same access to resources and infrastructure, extreme weather events could disproportionately affect the West Side. 

The heat – which felt as hot as 115 degrees in some areas — disrupted West Siders’ activities, from everyday chores to special events. Last Wednesday, for example, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs shifted its scheduled dance event Chicago SummerDance from Douglass Park’s outdoor area to its indoor air-conditioned facilities. The next day, a youth event bringing fire dancing and drumming to the 3000 block of West Fifth Avenue was canceled because of the heat advisory. 

 About a month ago, an extreme rain event left hundreds of West Side residents grappling with flooding in their homes.  

Compared with the early 1900s, Chicago’s weather is warmer and wetter, according to a report by the city of Chicago. In the city, precipitation has increased 12% to 15%, bringing more rain in the summertime, as reported in the city’s 2022 climate action plan. 
Last week’s heat was a result of a “heat dome,” or an atmospheric trap of hot air funneled from the Gulf of Mexico that parked over the Midwest. Yet, scientists have warned that the “frequency, duration and intensity of heat waves in Chicago are likely to increase substantially” due to climate change. A 2008 Chicago climate change report, estimated that extreme heat waves in Chicago could occur twice a decade by 2050. If globally greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, by the end of the century there could be several heat waves each summer. 

During last week’s heat wave, residents in heat islands — areas with less greenspace and more asphalt, which are common in Chicago’s West Side — experienced a more intense heat effect. On average, day temperatures in heat islands can be one to seven degrees higher than in outlying areas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Austin resident Sonya Hughes could attest to that. 

“It was too hot to be out,” she said. She took “many cold showers,” wore a wet towel and tried to stay out of the heat, using a fan to keep her apartment cool because her air conditioning stopped working.  

Hughes, 50, said she stayed out of the heat to prevent any health issues, though she was forced to be outside one day to attend a doctor’s appointment.  

She was right to be careful, experts said. Extreme weather, for example, can cause heat strokes and increase hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease, kidney and respiratory disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Heat can also be deadly. In 1995, a seven-day heat wave resulted in more than 700 excess deaths in Chicago. Nationwide, heat was the number one weather-related cause of death for the last three decades, heat was the number one weather-related cause of death, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Living in a traditionally under-resourced community further complicates that: A 2015 analysis found that the highest number of mortalities occurred in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. 

Spreading awareness 

During last week’s heat wave, in neighboring Oak Park, Ana Garcia-Doyle had to limit the amount of time she spent outdoors. She suffers from asthma, putting her at higher risk of a health complication as excessive heat worsens air quality, the CDC warns. Garcia-Doyle is the executive director of One Earth Collective, a nonprofit that helps run a community urban farm in partnership with Austin-based BUILD Chicago.   

Over the summer, she worked with Austin youth in an environmental education program at the urban farm. She noticed they were more interested in learning about the effects of climate change when they directly could feel the effects of climate-related events. Earlier this summer, they were surprised by the effects of poor air quality caused by Canadian wildfires, which could be felt in Chicago.  

Other environmental programs like the one led by Garcia-Doyle can serve as ways to increase awareness of the disproportionate effect of climate change in Chicago’s West Side. 

Earlier this summer, the city of Chicago launched a resident-led program to better map heat inequities, as part of a nationwide program led by the NOAA.  

The Heat Watch 2023 program invites volunteers to travel certain city routes with heat sensors. Each sensor measures temperature, humidity, time and location to identify areas disproportionately affected by heat.  

To determine the routes, the city asks residents to suggest locations that tend to get extremely hot or that serve as cooling centers in an open-source map. On the West Side, one of the sites input by residents is the city-owned vacant lot at 4700 W. Huron St. According to data input in the map, this spot was selected as it is among the most violent blocks and also has been identified as a daytime heat island with low tree canopy.  

To view the map or participate in the Heat Watch program, visit the Heat Watch 2023 page on the City of Chicago’s website.