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Extreme heat might be the new normal




KEITH SEBELIUS RESERVOIR -- Mike Lentz watched in amazement as the digital readout to his thermometer ticked higher and higher in late June.

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KEITH SEBELIUS RESERVOIR -- Mike Lentz watched in amazement as the digital readout to his thermometer ticked higher and higher in late June.

It hit 111. Then 113.

When it hit 117.1, "I thought, wow," said Lentz, the Bureau of Reclamation's dam superintendent.

About 5 minutes later, it hit 118 -- a new record for the Bureau of Reclamation shop below the dam holding back the lake water.

It also was the hot spot in the nation -- 20 degrees hotter than Death Valley National Park. It was only 3 degrees warmer than Hill City, about 35 miles to the south where back-to-back temperatures of 115 degrees brought national attention.

All across northwest Kansas in May and especially in June, it has been an endless onslaught of high heat -- killing three, 65-, 46- and 43-year-old men, in northwest Kansas.

July isn't any better, as heat is setting new records already.

There's been little rain as well, and what has fallen has been spotty.

It's a scenario many expect will be played out again and again.

Perhaps, the Great American Desert is returning, this time for real as climate conditions change and a new pattern of warmer winters and hotter summers emerge.

Fort Hays State University professor John Heinrichs pins much of the change on climate change brought on my an increase in greenhouse gases.

"It's likely," he said. "It's more likely than not. There certainly are underlying trends that are going on.

"I've been waiting for this for a while, quite a while."

A single string of 100-degree days isn't enough to convince Heinrichs, who has studied the climatology of western Kansas, that climate change is to blame.

It's the pattern.

"This pattern is so consistent over several years," he said of the gradually warming temperatures. "You can see the records that have been standing for a long time all falling."

That's because the sun is brighter -- not so much in how it's shining, but as it's reaching earth, warming the atmosphere and the oceans.

To be sure, Heinrichs said, there are annual variations -- sometimes extreme.

"On average, over time, it's getting warmer," he said.

His 2006 study of climatology in western Kansas suggested about half of the changes were as a result of greenhouse gases.

"And I stick to that," he said.

There are cycles in sunspots, at 11-, 22- and 57-year intervals.

And the earth's wobble, which brings climatological changes.

"We actually should be in a cycle where we are getting cooler," Heinrichs said. "The earth should be getting slightly cooler. But it's not."

Even with immediate reductions in greenhouse gases, the warming will continue.

"Some of it we can do something about," he said, "and we should. And part of it we have to adapt."

Adapting might be as simple as no longer buying a black car, which is quick to heat up. Or plant more trees, to help shade, cool and consume carbon dioxide.

"We can adapt to change and still be comfortable," he said. "But there are limits to that."

While Lentz at Norton said there's been some rain, evaporation has been dramatic.

"Some days it may amount to half an inch," he said of the rate of evaporation.

In fact, June's evaporation at Sebelius amounted to 1,419 acre-feet of water -- 463 million gallons. Cedar Bluff lost a billion gallons of water in June alone.

Yet, Lentz received 2.65 inches of rain in a single storm that swept through much of northwest Kansas. While there were rainfall reports of 2 to 5 inches in the area, Hays almost entirely was skipped.