SAN JUAN — Stepping outside in Puerto Rico’s capital city feels like walking inside a giant oven due to an “unprecedented” and record-breaking heat wave, which has already caused power and water outages as well as health concerns.
“The heat is unbearable,” fruit vendor Apolino Guzmán told Latino Rebels on Tuesday while standing in the shadow of his shop’s awning.
A record-breaking 94F had just been registered that day, though the temperature rose to 95F hours later, according to the National Weather Service (NWS), making it the hottest June 6 ever recorded. Meanwhile, the heat index, also known as the “feels like” temperature, climbed as high as 125F in neighboring municipalities.
“The reality is that we’re living through unprecedented times,” said Glorianne Rivera, a meteorologist at the NWS.
The NWS had issued an excessive heat watch for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for the previous weekend, which will continue in effect until at least Saturday afternoon for all of Puerto Rico.
Se ha emitido una Vigilancia de Calor Excesivo para PR hasta el sábado. Índices de calor (IC) por encima de 110F son posibles. Es poco probable que los IC alcancen el criterio para Aviso de Calor Excesivo en USVI. Sin embargo, IC por encima de 100F son posibles. #prwx #usviwx pic.twitter.com/lgNyvO4lxU
— NWS San Juan (@NWSSanJuan) June 7, 2023
Another record high was recorded last Sunday in Puerto Rico, and the temperature tied the previous record on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands on the same day.
The heat wave could possibly continue into the start of the following week, Rivera warned. By that time, meteorologists expect there to be some showers that hopefully cool the archipelago down.
The record-breaking temperatures are caused by a combination of climatological factors, among them temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean that are the warmest ever recorded and a pocket of dry, dusty air formed over the Saharan Desert that is currently drifting over the Caribbean and trapping heat close to the ground. An intense high-pressure system known as a “heat dome“ near the Caribbean is not only warming air and surface temperatures but diverting rain clouds as well. On top of this, the jet stream is also carrying warmer air from places farther south.
Meanwhile, meteorologists have officially declared the start of El Niño, the warm part of the Pacific Ocean’s temperature cycle. It is likely to cause record heat waves, droughts, floods and other weather extremes, as well as affect the Atlantic hurricane season, making forecasts more uncertain than usual.
Some meteorologists have been left “astonished” by the heat in Puerto Rico.
Life-threatening heat today in Puerto Rico so hot that some meteorologists are astonished. And more of the same to come this week. Heat index numbers as high as 115-125 today!! So what is going on? There are many factors, so let's dig in… thread 1/ pic.twitter.com/EMEgVkK9yE
— Jeff Berardelli (@WeatherProf) June 6, 2023
Warmer waters cause more humidity. When combined with intense heat, it can be deadly as the body sweats less and cannot cool itself down. Repeat exposure to heat without being able to recover properly at night can be disastrous, which is why the record-breaking minimum warmest temperature of 82F, recorded on three days in a row, is a serious cause for concern.
“That’s dangerous heat,” said John Morales, a meteorologist and founder of ClimaData.
The Department of Health issued a health advisory to keep outdoor activities to a minimum and to not walk dogs because it could burn their paws. The NWS warned that “heat exhaustion or heat stroke [are] likely with prolonged exposure or strenuous activity.”
Electrical System Fails Once Again During Crisis
As people remain indoors to escape the heat, electricity usage shoots up, placing a greater strain on an already fragile electrical grid still suffering from damages from hurricanes. Multiple blackouts have occurred throughout the archipelago, peaking at over 146,000 customers losing power on Wednesday, according to Power Outage US.
LUMA Energy, the private-public consortium in charge of managing and repairing the electrical grid, claimed high heat and wind caused power outages. The company urged people to “reduce your energy consumption if possible” to minimize disruptions.
Actualización importante: estamos monitoreando de cerca la probabilidad de más interrupciones de servicio temporales esta tarde por problemas relacionados con la generación.
Para minimizar la probabilidad de estas interrupciones, reduce tu consumo energético de ser posible. https://t.co/HyEcL2jwjp
— LUMA Puerto Rico (@lumaenergypr) June 6, 2023
As of Thursday morning, only about 10,000 people were without electricity, according to LUMA.
On Sunday the electrical system registered a 3,072-megawatt demand, the highest for the year so far, at the same time a power plant at the Aguirre power station momentarily went out of service. The same plant went out of service again on Tuesday and has yet to be repaired.
AES, which runs two power plants, cut back on electrical generation due to “necessary” repairs to their fueling system.
Un mantenimiento crítico al sistema de alimentación de combustible nos obliga a reducir parte de nuestra generación. Este había sido pospuesto para contribuir al sistema, pero es necesario realizarlo para la operación efectiva de la planta. Trabajamos arduamente para completarlo. pic.twitter.com/GhLhG9uS0D
— @AESpuertorico (@AESpuertorico) June 6, 2023
Some residents have also reported their water being cut due to a lack of electricity at water pumping stations—a common occurrence during blackouts and brownouts.
With these combined factors, the current heat wave is stifling and dangerous for many Puerto Ricans dealing with an unreliable electrical system. Multiple people Latino Rebels spoke with in the San Juan metro area had experienced both blackouts and brownouts, possibly causing damage to their electrical appliances.
Climate Change Across the Board
Puerto Rico’s record-breaking temperatures spring from a heat wave sprawling across the Caribbean. In Santo Domingo, the capital of the nearby Dominican Republic, residents suffered a record-high minimum of 82F. Meanwhile, Aruba saw a high of 95.5F —its hottest June day on record— and the Dutch island of Saba also had its hottest June day on record, as well as the second hottest day of any month.
“Surface temperatures in both the Pacific and the Atlantic are very warm and that’s going to drive temperatures higher all across the planet,” Morales explained. “And we’ll see it even hotter in future years.”
Experts expect longer and more frequent heat waves as the effects of climate change worsen. Morales pointed out that Puerto Rico’s heat wave was made at least five times more likely to happen due to global warming.
El cambio climático ha causado que el desarrollo de la histórica ola de calor en que se vive en PR y RD fuese 5 veces más probable comparado con un mundo no alterado por la mano del hombre, según el Indice de Cambio Climático (CSI, en inglés) de @ClimateCentral pic.twitter.com/HKRgvWmhjn
— John Morales (@JohnMoralesTV) June 7, 2023
“You look at those high heat warnings in the newspaper every morning and all of a sudden the reality of what the models have been showing —what we’ve been talking about for decades— it’s hard to ignore,” Bill Gould, director of the Caribbean Climate Hub and a research ecologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Latino Rebels.
The current heat waves are the most recent in a series of climate-change effects ratcheting up around the world.
Only a couple hundred miles away, in Haiti, flooding over the weekend and an earthquake on Tuesday killed at least 50 people. Also this week, one of the worst wildfire seasons in Canada has engulfed New York in clouds of smoke and haze, giving the city its worst air quality since the Environmental Protection Agency began recording air quality.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL