What's all the talk about a heat dome causing a heat wave that is blistering the eastern third of the nation? You may have heard your local TV meteorologist talk about a "dome of high pressure" being responsible for this heat wave.
Essentially, a heat dome is just another word for a dome of high pressure that forms south of the polar jet stream, usually during the summer months, in the Northern Hemisphere, said CNN meteorologist Chad Myers.
But why has this heat wave been so severe and deadly?
How many times have you also heard, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity," or, "It's a dry heat"? Believe it or not, the amount of water vapor present in the atmosphere can actually make a huge difference in the severity of a heat wave. The amount of moisture the atmosphere holds affects how severe the heat is to the human body.
Meteorologists use the dew point and the current temperature to calculate the heat index. When a parcel of humid air is cooled at a constant atmospheric pressure, the temperature at which water condenses is called the dew point and the condensed water is called dew. The higher the dew point, the higher the heat index, and the more severe the heat is to the body.
Dew points are downright oppressive when they are over 75 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, dew points of 40 to 50 degrees are very comfortable. With dry heat (lower dew point) the body can withstand much higher temperatures because when your body sweats, the sweat evaporates and cools the body. However, if the dew point is high, then the sweat on your body will not evaporate and the body overheats, Myers explained.
A very uncomfortable record dew point of 82 degrees was recorded Tuesday in Minneapolis. This also caused the heat index to reach 118 degrees, tying the record set in 1966 for the highest heat index ever recorded at the Twin Cities. Dew points soared into the 80s in the Midwest on Wednesday, causing heat indices to reach an oppressive 123 degrees Fahrenheit in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Heat indices this high usually occur near the Gulf of Mexico or the coast of Saudi Arabia near a relatively shallow, tropical body of water where dew points are high. In fact, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, located near the Persian Gulf, had the highest dew point ever recorded, 93 degrees, in 2003.
The unusually high dew points (in some cases, record all-time high dew points) combined with very warm temperatures is making this heat wave unusually deadly. At least 22 heat-related fatalities have been reported with this heat wave, and that figure will probably increase.
But why are the dew points currently at such high levels? Part of the answer is the record floods experienced this spring in the Midwest. The ground is still saturated, rivers and lakes are out of their banks and all of this water is turning to vapor and being released into the atmosphere. High dew points also are common in the Corn Belt of the upper Mississippi River Valley.
Surprisingly, the high dew points are enhanced by the mature corn itself, drawing water from the saturated soil and releasing it into the atmosphere. This process is what meteorologists call transpiration.
So the next time your neighbor jokingly says "it's not the heat, it is the humidity," that's a fact.