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Historic Pacific NW Heatwave Has Killed More Than Originally Thought

Historic Pacific NW Heatwave Has Killed More Than Originally Thought


[Writer’s disclosure: I live in a suburb of Portland, Oregon and will detail my experience at the end of the story]

In a region where only an estimated 30% of its residents have central air conditioning, people in the Pacific Northwest unaccustomed to heat were overwhelmed by the triple-digit temperatures and succumbed to the heat. Hundreds of deaths in Canada, Washington, and Oregon are being attributed to the historic “heatdome” that settled over the usually temperature region (the average June temperature in Portland is in the mid-60’s).

Oregon health officials said late Wednesday more than 60 deaths have been tied to the heat, with the state’s largest county, Multnomah, blaming the weather for 45 deaths since the heatwave began Friday. Multnomah County’s medical examiner blamed the deaths there on hyperthermia, an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the body to deal with heat. The victims ranged in age from 44 to 97.

The county that includes Portland said that between 2017 and 2019, there were only 12 hyperthermia deaths in all of Oregon. Washington State authorities had linked more than 20 deaths to the heat, but that number was likely to rise.

British Columbia’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said her office received reports of at least 486 “sudden and unexpected deaths” between Friday and 1 p.m. Wednesday. Normally, she said about 165 people would die in the province over a five-day period. “While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat related, it is believed likely that the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather,” LaPointe said in a statement.

The heatwave was caused by what meteorologists described as a dome of high pressure over the Northwest and worsened by human-caused climate change, which is making such extreme weather events more likely and more intense. Seattle, Portland, and many other cities broke all-time heat records, with temperatures in some places reaching above 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius). Hospitals reported record numbers of heat-related illnesses including heatstroke, which if left untreated can lead to death.

As cooler temperatures were bringing relief to Washington and Oregon by Tuesday, parts of Canada were still sweltering through record high temperatures. States like Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho all hit records highs as well, which presents the question of just how long the grid can sustain a population that’s increasingly dependent on air conditioning as climate change continues to impact the planet. With the record heat is also a record drought and the threat of the most intense wildfire season to date.

From generation at power plants to the transmission lines that carry electricity to homes and businesses, just about every part of the power system performs worse in conditions that are intensely hot and dry. That raises significant questions about the nation’s readiness for a future in which, climate scientists say, global warming is expected to make extreme weather events even more common. In Portland, the city’s public rail system, MAX Transit, had to shut down when power cables melted. Elsewhere in the city, the heat buckled the streets and sidewalks as the infrastructure simply wasn’t built to withstand such intense heat.

The effects of the heatwave were being felt nationwide. In New York City, residents received text alerts asking them to turn off their AC’s in an attempt to ward off a massive blackout. Manhattanites shared screenshots of the alert side-by-side with pictures of Times Square fully lit up and sucking up all of the electricity.

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Writer’s Note: 

As someone who survived the #PNWHeatwave2021 (which I can’t not see as “PN Wheatwave”), it was definitely miserable, but I didn’t have it as bad as others. My apartment doesn’t have central air, and despite having a window unit at its lowest setting, the downstairs never got cooler than 82 degrees. My bedroom window unit has a smaller area to cool, plus a door to keep it in, and that room got down to a nice 74 degrees. This despite blackout curtains on the windows and putting bowls of ice in front of fans, which works for like five minutes before the ice melts. When I wasn’t running the bedroom AC unit, the room got up to 90 degrees at one point, and the en suite bathroom floor felt like one of those fancy heated floors rich people pay a lot of money for, but I got it for free THANKS CLIMATE CHANGE! Also, the toilet seat felt heated, and all of my products were heated up, so I tried to pretend I was at a spa and using the sauna.

All kidding aside, it was scary to open my door and feel what 114 degrees feels like. Meteorologists believe this wasn’t an anomaly, but the beginning of a new climate shift. This is the part of the disaster movie where the scientists who have been yelling at the government that it might just be too late. We’re only going to get warmer if stricter Climate Change legislation isn’t enacted as soon as possible.

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