Hot enough for you? In Tucson, Ice Break Day arrives

[UPDATED May 16 — It’s Ice Break Day The official temperature hit 100 degrees in Tucson for the first time this year at 3.54 p.m. today.]

The sun is shining, the temperatures are climbing; the snowbirds are fleeing from whence they came, and it already hit 100 degrees in Phoenix.

Okay, Tucson. You’re up.

In Arizona, the sunniest state (sorry, Florida, but that’s a fact), temperatures somewhere in the state reach 100 degrees or more an average of 110 days a year — a third of the year.

The guessing games start early in the spring about when the temperature will first hit 100 degrees. If you were guessing, and many people do at this time each year (some of them armed with actual meteorological forecast data), Tucson was forecast to reach its first triple-digit reading around May 26 — at least according to a guesstimate made in April by the weather people at KGUN-TV News 9 in Tucson.

However, that guess was off. All week, guesses faltered. As of Wednesday, KGUN had stuck by its guns, forecasting that the temperature would actually break the triple digits on Saturday the 17th — which would have beat last year’s first-100-degree day by a long shot, because 2013 was a laggard until the temperature smashed through the triple-digits for the first time on June 1, when it reached 105. Last year was the latest first-100-degree day since 2004. In 2012, the mark was reached on April 22.

But if you’re keeping competitive tabs, Tucson’s other two television stations, KOLD and KVOA, both had dropped out of the this-weekend predictions that they had earlier been making for the triple-digit breakthrough. As of Wednesday, each station was predicting highs of only in the high 90s on Saturday. On Sunday afternoon they were forecasting that the first 100 degree day for 2014 would be on Friday, May 16 — one day ahead of KGUN’s forecast. The National Weather Service agreed that temperatures should hit 100 on Saturday.

So all of the guesses were wrong. Whatever, the guessing games underlie curiosity, mixed with some dread, in these parts about when the scorching desert summer arrives — summer being defined not by the calendar but by what KVOA calls “Ice Break Day,” which is a kind of promotional joke about the first day the ice is reckoned to break up on the Santa Cruz River — which of course has no water in it, and would not have ice even if it did have water.

Despite some misgivings about the civic wisdom of promoting the arrival of blazing 100-degree temperatures, KVOA is again running its annual Icebreak contest this year, with prizes of a trip to Cancun, a gift basket and a party pass to a water park awarded to the winner and two runners-up, as determined by the earliest guesses of the exact date and time. Last year, top prize was an Apple iPad.

That reflects the long but slightly uneven tradition of KVOA’s Icebreak Day contests in Tucson. And TV stations are not alone in promoting the frivolity.

Meanwhile, up the desert in Phoenix, where recent summers have been the hottest on record, the run-up to 100-degree-plus weather always gains attention, but just earlier in the year than Tucson.

Not long before the first triple-digit day in Phoenix, on May 3, Matthew Pace, a weather anchor and meteorologist, took a moment before going on-air in the studio of KPNX Channel 12 news, to discourse on high pressure and heat warnings while gesturing toward Sky Harbor International Airport. The seventh floor studio looks over the airport, and the view also allows Pace and fellow meteorologists to study clouds, dust and … well, the weather as seen through the window, not just as seen in the computer data.

“In the last 20 years we have been in a drought condition,” Pace said. “With drought the jet stream pushes way north so high pressure is sitting above us letting things heat up a lot faster.”

Channel 12 doesn’t a first-100-degree contest, probably reflecting the blase attitude toward extreme heat in Phoenix, but last June, Channel 12 News did promote a heat-awareness contest. The news organization placed a block of ice outside, then urged followers to guess how many hours it would take to melt.

“One night someone turned the ice block on its side,” Pace said. Some believe the contestant was trying to help himself or herself win the contest, aware that Phoenix radiates ground heat all night long. Anyway, it took the block of ice one and a half days to melt, leaving a small puddle as the only evidence that anyone had cared.

O.K., so ice melts — even figuratively, as it is jokingly said to do on the Santa Cruz River in the Tucson area.

In Tucson, KGUN-TV avoids heat-guess contests in favor of dire warnings, in the early stages of hot weather based on the initial 100 degree, 105 degree and 110 degree day of the year.

Erin Christiansen, KGUN’s chief meteorologist, says that 100-degree days are nothing to take lightly. New college students, tourists and others not familiar with the area, and perhaps lulled by the relatively comfortable low humidity, need to pay close attention to the warning signs of heat stroke, she said.

“When someone stops sweating, it is not a good sign,” Christiansen said. “It is the number-one sign of a heat stroke.”

Instead of a contest over the arrival of 100 degree days, KGUN has a different twist, a Monsoon Contest in early June, when viewers can try to predict the first day of rainfall between June 15 and Sept. 30 – official monsoon season.

It’s always something.

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