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Extreme heat causes mayhem in Utah

Published August 2, 2013 7:14 am

Weather • Record-setting temps also stressing crops and taxing power grid.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's record-setting July heat has spread mayhem across the state, with doctors, road authorities and even gardeners scrambling to adapt to what seems more and more like the new normal.

July was the hottest for Salt Lake City since recordkeeping started in 1874, and it capped a more than decade-long warming trend for the city. Including this year, the seven warmest Julys on record in Salt Lake City all have occurred since 2002. The previous record for warmest July in Salt Lake City was set in 2007 with an average temperature of 84 degrees, one-10th of a degree below this year's record-beating mark.

One of the most prominent heat-induced problems was road buckling on highways in Salt Lake, Summit and Davis counties. Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason said the buckling happens when rocks and debris get wedged into expansion joints that separate concrete road panels. As the temperature rises, the panels expand, but the debris leaves them with nowhere to go.

"It almost looks like an accelerated pothole," Gleason said.

Typically, UDOT deals with three to five buckling incidents annually, Gleason said. So far this year, it's closer to 16 or 17. The area of I-15 at Point of the Mountain is particularly prone to buckling because it is more than 50 years old. UDOT plans to replace the stretch in a few years.

In the meantime, the hot weather is slowing down commuters and costing tax dollars — about $180,000 on heat-related repairs and another $60,000 on preventive measures.

The heat also is taking a toll on individuals. At the University of Utah Hospital, emergency room physician Troy Madsen said Thursday he had seen an increase in heat-related illnesses. Madsen has treated heat exhaustion, though he had heard reports of people suffering from more severe heat stroke.

"I think I could comfortably say I've seen twice as many cases as previous summers," Madsen said, adding that many patients have been elderly people who have come in when temperatures topped 100 degrees.

Also in Salt Lake City, emergency room physician Jeff Hardin of St. Mark's Hospital saw a similar trend.

"We've definitely seen an uptick in the cases here in the past two weeks," Hardin said. "This year has been a lot worse than last year."

Hardin and Madsen cautioned people to take extra care in the heat and drink plenty of fluids. Hardin added that leaving children in cars is particularly dangerous.

Audrey Glasby — a spokeswoman for MountainStar Healthcare, which operates St. Mark's and a handful of other Utah hospitals — said her company has seen a 53 percent increase in heat-related diagnoses in June 2013 over June 2012.

Plants and home gardeners also are having problems. Taun Beddes, a Utah State University Extension horticulturist in Utah County, said tomato plants will experience "flower abortion" when temperatures rise above 90 degrees during the day and 70 degrees at night. Recent high temperatures may consequently delay tomato crops and could adversely affect peppers, beans and other edible plants as well.

The heat also is taxing Utah's electrical grid. Dave Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, said this year's record for peak electricity usage — which was set July 1 — was "significantly higher than last year." Eskelsen said the biggest drain on the grid comes from air conditioners, which have surpassed more energy-efficient swamp coolers in popularity, and refrigerators and freezers.

The heat also stresses electrical substations, which convert energy for small-scale usage and, in the process, generate some heat. Typically, the substations get a break at night, but unusually high nighttime temperatures curtail needed cool-down time.

"The efficiency of that equipment gets lower and lower," he said.

Eskelsen said authorities have spent years strengthening the electrical grid, cutting heat-related power outages from 15 percent of all outages in 2000 to less than 1 percent today.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii —

Heat illnesses

Emergency room physician Jeff Hardin reports that heat illness is broken into three levels:

Heat illness includes profuse sweating, muscle cramps and other symptoms. It can be treated by moving to a cooler environment and drinking fluids.

Heat exhaustion can include headaches, nausea, sweating, dizziness, darker urine and other symptoms. It can be treated by lying down, drinking fluids, applying wet towels and elevating feet.

Heat stroke is the most severe and can be life-threatening. It includes vomiting, confusion, a rapid pulse and a core body temperature over 104 degrees. Sufferers will need medical attention.