The record heat wave in the Pacific Northwest is forcing a reckoning of the climate crisis as many living in the typically mild region wonder what rising temperatures mean for the future.
A “heat domeunprecedented hot air in recent days over much of the states of Oregon and Washington in the United States, and southern British Columbia in Canada,, smashing weather records in the usually temperate region.
Temperatures in tiny Lytton, British Columbia, reached 49.6C (121.3F), setting an all-time Canadian record. days before a forest fire swept through the city. Roads gave way under the heat in Washington and Oregon. Heat and heavy air conditioners use tens of thousands of power cuts. The dead, thought to number in the hundreds, have not yet been counted.
In Washington and Oregon, largely liberal, climate-conscious states, efforts to combat global warming have long been popular. Washington Governor Jay Inslee put himself forward as the “climate candidate” in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. He argued that in the absence of federal leadership, residents of the region would “do our part to solve a global problem.” to deal with”.
Having climate conversations generally focused on what Northwesterners could do to protect the planet or other people in places at greater risk of extreme heat. But after three days of temperatures near or above 100F (38C) in Seattle — a city where residents often refer to the sixth month as “June-July” as temperatures rarely reach 80F (27C) — they are increasingly concerned about themselves.
“It felt like we had set our earth on fire,” said Summer Stinson, a 49-year-old nonprofit executive from Seattle.
“There was a naivete that this wouldn’t affect us in the Northwest,” Stinson continued.
Stinson lived in Las Vegas and knew how to handle the heat. She covered south-facing windows in her craft-style home with aluminum foil, kept the appliances off, and squatted with her teenage son and black Labrador retriever, Rico. It was oppressive, reminiscent of the smoke from the wildfires that had trapped West Coast residents indoors over the past summers. Stinson binged the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and worried about her town.
While city workers turned on some water fountains and spray parks, many wading pools remained closed due to a national chlorine shortage. Like most affluent American cities, Seattle has hundreds of people living in tents and shacks in public parks and empty spaces; according to Stinson, city leaders should have opened more cooling centers and made sure they stay open during the hot nights.
In the emergency department of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the region’s premier trauma hospital, Dr. Jeremy Hess the scene he expected Sunday night: dozens of people with heat-related illnesses. By Monday evening, when temperatures peaked, the scene was unusually intense.
Ambulance teams were wheeled in rags and transported critically ill patients who had been intubated in the field. One hospital nearby had few ventilators, while equipment in others broke down due to the heat. Hospitals were almost overcrowded.
“We really haven’t had such activity here since the start of the Covid outbreak,” said Hess, who also directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington. “We were on the edge.”
Hess has contributed to UN climate work and knew both the dangers of extreme heat and the lack of preparedness in most communities, including his own.
There had been a sense, Hess said, that the Northwest would be spared the worst damage from a warming world. There is truth to the sentiment, as the region, with its prosperity, abundant resources and mostly mild weather, is better positioned than much of the world for a hotter, more erratic climate. The deadly heat wave came as a surprise.
“People have recognized that in theory this could happen, but I don’t think they expected it to happen,” he said. “They certainly didn’t expect it to happen now, nor did they expect it to be this bad.”
As of Thursday, officials in Washington had attributed: 20 dead to the heat wave, 13 of them in King County, including Seattle. Oregon had recorded 79 dead attributable to the heat, the state medical examiner said, and officials in British Columbia said they had recorded hundreds of more “sudden and unexpected” deaths, though they warned it was too early to determine how many were heat-related. All of these numbers are expected to rise in the coming days.
The direct blame for the tragedy was a towering ridge of high-pressure air that cut off the flow of cool, wet Pacific winds, the Washington State climatologist, Nick Bond, said. The ridge — called a “heat dome” — also heated the air by compressing it, carrying hot, dry air eastward from the dry side of the Cascade Mountains.
Bond described the phenomenon as “unprecedented”. Critical from a health perspective, it kept nighttime temperatures high, prolonging heat-related stress in residents.
Was the climate crisis to blame? Bond was ambiguous. Normal daytime temperatures in the region have risen about 2C degrees while normal nighttime temperatures have risen about 3C degrees. It made sense, Bond said, that the heat wave would have been less severe if the climate had been generally cooler.
More instructive, in Bond’s eyes, is the vulnerability revealed by the extreme heat.
“There is no doubt that the climate is warming and this shows what can happen,” he said. “We didn’t like it, so let’s do something about it.”
When Michaela Eaves and her colleagues heard the extreme heat was on the way they set up tents – large ones with air conditioning – and filled them with animals.
Eaves is a volunteer with the Washington State Animal Response Team. She and other volunteers spent the scorching weekend cooling dogs, cats and other pets in military surplus tents southeast of Seattle.
Dogs stayed in their own tent, while cats, accompanied by a flock of chickens and a rabbit, stayed in a darkened enclosure. The shelter reached its maximum capacity of 40 animals per day before closing on Tuesday.
Avoiding the heat wasn’t an option for Cody Spencer, 32, or his wife. Together they run a pair of video game stores in Seattle – Pink Gorilla Games – that cater to tech workers interested in spending some of their disposable income on vintage Nintendo systems. While one of the couple’s stores has air conditioning, the other, located in Seattle’s Historic International District, does not.
“It’s a very old building, super, super old. And so did the landlord, and he didn’t help at all,” Spencer said.
Customers kept coming, so Spencer sweated out on the hottest days in Seattle history. Home was no better. Although he lives in a “kinda spend-y” apartment, Spencer, like most Seattleites, has no air conditioning.
Of course, air conditioning is a bad answer to a warming world. Washington state lawmakers have taken more substantial action on climate change, recently creating a cap-and-trade system similar to California’s, as well as new regulations designed to limit transportation pollution.
On Thursday, the Washington Senator Rebecca Saldaña, whose support proved crucial to the approval of the cap-and-trade plan earlier this year, said the heat wave demonstrated the need for climate action, especially for people already living with pollution. Saldaña believes a new racially conscious effort to curb pollution in Washington can have consequences.
“There is a way forward,” said Saldaña, a progressive Democrat who represents a racially and economically diverse district in Seattle. “I don’t think the will is there yet, but I’m hopeful that these moments of crisis, these moments when our communities are being tested, will light the fire to do something.”