‘It feels like normal but it isn’t’: temperatures set to rise by most ever

California set to see highest ever temperatures this week, with higher than usual sun melting ice

The winds gathering are shifting from La Paz toward its northern neighbour, the city of El Alto.

The closer the two cities gets, the hotter El Alto gets. Some lights down there are barely visible at night, others dim and they turn on and off randomly. It’s not just the sun that’s shining brighter. The strong winds bring in a powerful wind that produces extreme temperature.

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Though the sign notes 7.8 degrees Celsius, it’s much higher here than that. Melting ice on the mountains are a reason why. In California this week, forecasters project that temperatures will at least reach 50C (122F) on Thursday, making it the warmest February ever recorded.

Residents of the Bolivian highlands have experienced extreme heat more than once this winter, but this time it’s been the effect of prolonged high pressure that’s transported hotter air masses across South America.

“People can be very, very lucky this year because this energy does not die out overnight like it usually does, but it stays almost forever – at least till the middle of the summer,” meteorologist José Carlos says. “It feels like normal, but it isn’t.”

Melting ice on the remote Andes mountains is a big reason why El Alto becomes so hot. Photograph: Reuters

On the peaks of the Andes, only the thickest snow continues to stay. The swirling heat of the past few weeks has melted away much of the precipitation that once kept the sea water on top of the mountains.

As a result, about 10% of the volume of water that is normally collected is now broken by just one-sixth of the sun’s radiation, meaning the water evaporates, leaving a desert-like air above. The result is a prolonged drought, even as the Andes still receive many winters with plenty of snow.

But there is an upside. The heat means “outdoor activities become a lot more comfortable”, Carlos says.

This happens because people are literally drinking more water, keeping more of their body fluids replenished during the hottest hours of the day, Carlos says.

“With more sun on the bodies, the body temperature doesn’t get very high like at night,” he says.

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