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Extreme Heat Ambushes the Pacific Northwest Again

The Pacific Northwest sizzled beneath its first heat wave of the season. It probably won’t be its last.

The space needle.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The worst thing about growing up in Seattle was that school would get out before summer actually started. Every year around mid-June, when the last-day-of-school festivities were over, you still had to wait weeks before it would be warm enough to break out the Otter Pops or go swimming in the lake. Because, as every Seattle kid knows, summer reliably doesn’t start in the Pacific Northwest until July 5.

Or rather, as every Seattle kid knew.

Tuesday offered the first day of relative relief for the Pacific Northwest after four consecutive days of record-breaking spring heat (bless you, “deepening marine influence”). But it had been a doozy getting here: Some 12 million people in Washington and Oregon were under a heat advisory over the weekend as temperatures in the region topped out at more than 20 degrees above the normal high this time of year, which should be in the mid-60s.

Portland, Oregon, endured three straight days of 90-degree temperatures — more consecutive 90-degree days than Dallas, Texas, has seen this year, NBC News reports. Over the border in British Columbia, the city of Squamish hit what appears to be the blistering max of this particular heat wave: 96 degrees.

Some national news outlets correctly pointed out this heat wave is significantly cooler than the June 2021 “heat dome” that pushed temperatures to 116 degrees in Portland and 121 degrees in Lytton, British Columbia — an extreme weather event that killed an estimated 1,400 people in the U.S. and Canada. (This weekend’s heat event was also significantly different, meteorologically speaking).

But the question isn’t if the Pacific Northwest’s recent heat was its hottest ever. It’s if the region is prepared for this kind of anomalous heat to become a regular thing.

To be clear, tying a single heat wave to climate change involves extended study. Still, the nonprofit news organization Climate Central’s early analysis indicates that “human-caused climate change made the record-breaking spring heat forecast … up to 5 times more likely.” (The 2021 heat wave was ultimately found to have been “virtually impossible” without climate change).

It’s also well-researched at this point that heat waves are becoming worse and more frequent. Sure enough, in 2022, Seattle also had its longest heat wave ever. Events such as the one this weekend also increase the likelihood and intensity of future wildfires — a fact already evidenced in 2023 by a number of fires burning around the world, as I’ve previously written, including in Alberta, Canada, where this heat wave may further exacerbate already out-of-control burns.

But the Pacific Northwest is particularly susceptible to heat waves because it’s wildly unused to them. For one thing, there’s the physical shock of this kind of heat so early in the year: “Typically, unseasonably warm weather early in the ‘heat season’ can be particularly challenging to human health because the population is less acclimatized versus later in the summer,” Zac Schlader, an associate professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, told The Washington Post.

For another, it’s harder for people in the Pacific Northwest to cool down when it’s 90 out than for people in, say, Phoenix or Las Vegas — cities that were constructed with heat in mind. Seattle, for example, is the second-least-air-conditioned metro area in the country (behind only “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in” San Francisco). Just over half of the homes in the area have a/c, and many of them are new buildings.

The distribution is also unequal; many of the people who don’t have access to a/c live below the poverty level. Only recently has Oregon mobilized to require all new housing to have air conditioning installed in at least one room. Counterintuitively — as Heatmap has covered — there is also a very real risk that people in the Pacific Northwest, who don’t grow up having heat-coping techniques ingrained in them, could be in danger if the power grid fails and they suddenly aren’t able to rely on their a/cs.

There are other ways the region is worryingly ill-prepared for managing heat, too. Pacific Northwesterners, sick of dealing with the heat, might consider jumping into one of the region’s plentiful lakes and rivers. But those bodies of water are currently full of super-fresh new snowmelt and that water is very, very cold even when the air temperature is not. People die every year from the sudden shock of cannonballing into what looks like blissfully refreshing water. At the same time, many public pools in the area — a crucial resource during heat waves — are dealing with lifeguard shortages and weren’t able to open this weekend.

As hot as it is, though, it’s also still early in the year; so early, in fact, that snow hasn’t melted out of the mountains yet. But it has gotten warm up there, too. That means anyone who’s considering taking a hike in the heat could inadvertently end up in danger of, all things, an avalanche. And that’s not even to circle back to the fires, which will gobble up all the dry vegetation they can get whenever the right spark comes along.

If there’s a grim solace, though, it’s that practice makes perfect. The more extreme heat the Pacific Northwest experiences, the more its residents will learn to adjust. Already you can see these lessons being learned — Oregon’s a/c law, for one, as well as Seattle-area officials directing bus drivers to allow people to ride for free if they’re clearly escaping the heat. Regular people are also learning to recognize signs of heat illness or to preemptively keep their blinds closed in the mornings to maintain the dark, precious coolness inside.

There will be cultural changes as well, of course. Seattle kids don’t have to wait until the Fourth of July any longer to chase down ice cream trucks. As everyone knows, Pacific Northwest summers start in May.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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A coral reef in color and black and white.
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