In Tucson, Not Everyone Is Equal in the Face of Heat

As summers get hotter, people who work outdoors, those on a low income, and the elderly face imminent peril.

To live in Tucson is to be exposed. The Arizona city unfolds beneath four mountain ranges and a gaping sky, welcoming relentless sunlight. Anything here can be sun-bleached — billboards, garden hoses, family photos near windows, laundry left out to dry. Most of the year it’s a dry heat, and sweat evaporates off skin faster than it’s produced.

photo of Tucson, AZ house
By 2050, Tucson is projected to feel like 105F or higher for more than a third of the year. Photo by Andrew / Flickr.

Summertime is different. In monsoon season, heat and humidity steadily increase until a storm breaks. There is no other release. Heat cannot exit from the body, creating a claustrophobic feeling inside the skin. Sweat becomes a vital sign — its absence indicates heatstroke.

Not all Tucsonans stand equal in the face of heat. If you’re lucky enough to have an office job and a robust air conditioning system, your discomfort will be limited to the walk through a parking lot. But as summers get more intense, people who work outdoors, those on a low income, and the elderly face imminent peril.

John Soland, a salesman at a cooler parts store, sees people come in for parts and for shelter. “We had a guy that passed away under a tree in front of Walgreens from the heat just a couple weeks ago,” he says. “I saw him every day. I’d hand him cups of water. He just laid down and passed away.”

The independent climate research organization recently labeled Tucson the “harbinger” of dangerous increases in heat and humidity; since 1970 the city has seen the second largest increase of days that feel over 100F (37C). By 2050, Tucson is projected to feel like 105F (40C) or higher for more than a third of the year.

While many Tucsonans have adapted to increasingly hot summers, the materials of our homes and comfort have not. Air conditioning units, evaporative coolers and roofs are breaking down faster than ever before. Even so, the city is growing as people get priced out of California.

For the thousands of registered contractors in Tucson, business is booming. To cash in, these technicians endure hours of exposure every day.

At 4:30 a.m., the sky is dark over Tucson. Leaving town on the highway, darkness stretches out between drivers and twinkling civilization. One pair of lights edges against the engulfing black of Pusch Ridge, a granite leviathan on the north side of town. The headlights belong to Taylor Law, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician, on his way to replace a condenser. He starts his days early — 3 a.m. — in a race against soaring temperatures.

Around 5 a.m., Law arrives at the upscale planned community of Saddle Brooke, where he is greeted by white hairs in neon, walking their dogs.

photo of Tucson, AZ house
Shops and a parking lot in front of Pusch Ridge, a granite leviathan on the north side of Tucson. Photo byDjmaschek.

At 28, Law has spent most of his adult years outside. He’s white, but his skin is nut brown. “Only the hands and the face, though,” he says. “My wife loves the sunglasses tan.” He wears a blue cotton T-shirt with sleeves to his wrists to protect him from the sun and sips from the jumbo Hydro Flask his wife got him. Other technicians keep icy coolers in the backs of their vans and drink Gatorade or Pedialyte to keep their electrolytes up.

Law likes his job, and is good at it, but hopes to one day move into sales. When asked about his goals, he replies: “I want to work less and make more money.” On a later job, he takes a short break to admire a client’s massive truck and daydream about a toy hauler. “Working in these better-off areas, I can see what is possible. The closer I am to money, the more likely it’ll be that I get there,” he says.

He pulls into the driveway and turns off the van’s frigid air conditioning before unloading heavy equipment next to the condenser he will replace — a five-hour operation he can trim down to three with good planning.

At 6 a.m., the temperature breaks 80F (26C). The birds and mosquitoes have joined Law in the side yard. He looks like the world’s sweatiest orthodontist, working delicately with a thin nozzle of fire. Two pale elderly women pull their golf cart into the garage across the street. They cast a look in Law’s direction like they’re happy to be heading indoors, then close the curtains.

“Maintenance out here is crucial,” Law says of his work. “You have extreme heat out here, which beats these units up. But, on top of the extreme heat, you have a lot of run time on these systems. Even keeping your thermostat at 80, your system is going to be running a lot during this time of year.”

Extra runtime means systems are apt to break down when Tucsonans rely on them most. Proactive measures help some Tucsonans avoid that uncomfortable position, but can cost hundreds of dollars a year. Instead, many Tucsonans nurse their systems along, replacing or repairing parts as necessary. Then, the resourceful go to parts stores.

Customers fill the parking lot at Arizona Maintenance, waiting for Aribal Benitez to open shop. Some have spent the night with broken evaporative coolers and could not sleep. The sooner they can get the parts they need, the more time they have to work against the rapidly increasing heat.

His cash register features monuments to Tucsonans’ endurance: pumps covered in mineral deposits like hoary stalagmites, cooler pads transformed into blocks of concrete, each caked with mineral debris that slowed the evaporative cooler until it stopped. The buildup is evidence that these homeowners endured years of discomfort before replacing a part that costs about $20. Benitez sees other homeowners go without cooling until June to keep electric bills down. “Tucson is a biweekly town,” he explains. Since many wage workers get paid every other week, his store sees more business on payday.

Many customers have lived in Tucson for all or most of their lives, as has a contractor named Scooby, who sources metal roofing supplies directly from Benitez’s factory. Scooby is in a rush to get back out. “When you work outside, every minute that goes by, it gets hotter,” says Benitez.

By 11 a.m., what little shelter workers had outside is gone. “You wear a hat, make sure you cover your face,” says Jesus Vasquez, a client who started working on roofs this summer. If he didn’t wear a cowl over his neck up to his sunglasses, the sun reflecting off the roof would burn his face until it peeled. “We usually tend to wear steel-toed boots. With regular shoes, the bottom starts legitimately melting.” He reveals the bottom of his sneaker. The yellow rubber melted through, forming a ridge where his sole poked out.

“But this job is good. There are ups and downs. Cloudy days are the ups,” he says. In the middle of the day, shade is hard to come by. He has hidden underneath a vent for shelter. If he pushes himself too hard, he could fall off a roof. At the same time, if he turns down a job, there are thousands of other contractors in the city.

“If they don’t show up, someone else is gonna show up,” says Benitez as he pulls on his gloves. From 1:30 to 4 p.m., the roof is around 120F (50C). “For this job, you have to be unconscious,” says Benitez. “If you’re conscious, you won’t do this job.”

Though heat deaths most impact the elderly and those without homes, heat disproportionately impacts the quality of life in low-income areas.

“If you lay an extreme heat map over a map of low income areas, it’s the same map,” says Regina Romero, the only major party candidate for mayor of Tucson. These areas suffer from the same urban heat island effect that causes the rising number of heat deaths in Phoenix, where fewer trees and larger swaths of impermeable ground prime areas for heat absorption. In these neighborhoods especially, Tucsonans lean on public spaces like libraries as shelter from the heat.

Gregg Garfin, an associate professor of climate, natural resources and policy at the University of Arizona, points out that heat islands cause night temperatures to rise even faster than daytime ones, and leave less time for Tucsonans’ homes and bodies to recover. “This translates into increased energy use,” he says. “Someone born in the 1960s is probably turning on that AC earlier and keeping it on later than their parents did.”

Though heat islands affect specific areas, climate issues such as water conservation and electric transit options mobilize voters across Tucson. “The mayor and city council have been working hard to incentivize water conservation,” says Romero. “This is nibbling around the edges of the problem.

“My vision is to make sure that we have not just a livable community, but a thriving, climate-resilient community,” Romero adds. “That we’re investing in climate action; so that we are on our way to planting a million trees by 2030.” Romero envisions a walkable Tucson with reliable, affordable, electric transit options “so that people want to use our transit system.”

“Tucsonans need to believe that this investment is for their quality of life,” she says.

At noon in Tucson, the world is eerily still. No people walk on the streets. No cars drive on the road. The chirping birds have returned to nest. The flurries of rabbits have curled up in their warrens. The only movement comes from the hawk circling above, and the slow drift of clouds.

The circulatory system is frantically bailing heat from the body. If Law pauses from his work, he might notice the heartbeat surging under every inch of his skin. Instead, he pushes silently through. “I’m the type of person to just grunt through pain. I don’t know how to slow down,” he says. This attitude has caused him advanced back problems that his insurance won’t cover. “It got to the point where I couldn’t tie my shoes.”

At 3 p.m., he climbs down the ladder for the last time. He collapses the ladder and heaves it over his shoulder, up onto the roof of his van, and drives away.

When the sun goes down, the city can finally relax. Temperatures start to cool in mid-August, when the monsoon breaks and rain pours down. The night after a rain is almost comfortable. Law drives to a date with his pregnant wife, one of the last before their son arrives. The windy roads are unlit and everything is quiet. His car windows are open; the air conditioner is off.

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