Heat is on ... and on and On
A handful of 90-degree or hotter days is typical for a summer in Massachusetts, but the recent heat wave that has baked the area is still creating some challenges.
“This year has been pretty typical with the ups and downs of summer,” said Frank Nocera, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Boston.
Tuesday brought scorching heat to communities across the region as temperatures sat in the 90s. In Fitchburg, it was the city’s ninth above 90-degree day.
Forecasters anticipate a return to more usual conditions. The trend in the area for next few days is temperatures in the 80s, Nocera said, with the possibility of another warm stretch with increased humidity heading into Sunday.
Temperatures go up when the jet stream retreats back into Canada and brings hot air north. It cools down when the jet stream dips back down into New England.
Last year, between May and September, Fitchburg experienced 17 days of 90-degee tempreatures, according to climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While summer heat is a feature of the region’s climate, it can come with challenges. Dry conditions can make things difficult for farmers growing summer crops like corn, peaches and berries.
In fact, farmers around the area said they are far more concerned with the lack of rain than they are with high temperatures.
“Heat is not really the issue,” said Caroline Zuk, owner of Saja’s Countryside Farm in Dracut. “But when you don’t have the right amount of moisture and irrigation to go in concert with this heat, it’s a big problem. Anything will dry out if it can’t get a drink of water.”
Although conditions have not hit the same level as the summer of 2016, when most of the region faced a months-long moderate drought, precipitation has been below average. Lowell received 2.72 inches of rain in June, compared to a 30-year June normal of 4.17 inches, and just 0.27 inches in July through Wednesday, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, when temperatures reached the mid-90s, Zuk walked through her farm’s cornfields, pointing out plants that had darker, thinner leaves as a result of the dryness.
Zuk and her staff have increased the regularity with which they water their crops. This week, she has been running water reels in the morning and evening, if only to help moisten the ground so it does not bake into a hard surface impenetrable by eventual rain.
Other farmers have employed similar strategies. Ellen Parlee, owner of Parlee Farms in Tyngsboro, said her staff is running drip irrigation 24 hours a day and monitoring the soil to keep crops as healthy as possible.
“I don’t think people realize what heat can do to farms,” Parlee said. “This is challenging weather, but we’re hoping to get to the other side of it soon.”
Paul Gove plants on 45 acres of land from his sixth-generation, family-owned farm in Leominster. The farm has a series of pipes to bring water in from a nearby pond, but he said rain is a better way to water the fruits, vegetables and flowers.
“Mother Nature does a better job than we do,” Gove said Tuesday at his farm stand. “If we could get an inch of rain a week, that would be great.”
Gove said the farm manages during the hot and dry months. Weather is just another varying factor to keep an eye on.
“It’s New England,” he said. “If we’re not prepared for it, it’s our own dumb fault.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection has restrictions governing when and how often water can be used. And some communities have complete bans on outdoor watering.
As of June 28, more than 100 municipalities have mandatory use restrictions, with some implemented at the beginning of the year, according to DEP.
Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Ashburnham, Townsend, Shirley, Ayer and Devens have mandatory use restrictions.
Drought levels are normal statewide as of June 1, according to the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Another result of elevated temperatures is increased electrical usage as homes, businesses and public buildings ramp up use of air conditioners.
Alec O’Meara, a spokesman for Unitil, said days that see the most strain on the power grid -- what utility companies refer to as “peak load days” -- often coincide with the hottest days of the year.
“People just get tired of the heat and crank their air conditioners,” O’Meara said. “You’re using more because that air conditioner is working that much harder to maintain that temperature.”
ISO New England tracks usage statistics and posts weekly forecasts on its website. The data shows the stark difference in electrical usage at different temperatures. In a seven-day forecast published July 1, ISO predicted a peak load of 24,400 megawatts on July 2, when the forecast high in Boston was 90 degrees. A later forecast, though, projected a peak load of 19,450 megawatts on Wednesday, when the forecast high in Boston was only 77 degrees.
Despite the increased usage, O’Meara said high temperatures do not typically make power outages more likely. He said the largest Unitil outage during last week’s heat wave came because of a downed tree, not because of the weather.
Follow Mina Corpuz on Twitter @mlcorpuz and Chris Lisinski on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.