TThe recent heat wave that swept through the U.S. Pacific Northwest not only erased temperature records in cities like Seattle and Portland, but it also put a torch to a comforting bromide that the region would be a soft and safe haven. from the ravages of the climate crisis. .
Unprecedented temperatures baked the region three weeks ago, part of a procession of heat waves that have swept across the arid western United States, from Montana to southern California, for the past month. A “heat dome” installed over the area saw Seattle hit 108F (42.2C), breaking the previous record by 3F (1.7C), while Portland, Oregon, shot to its own record of 116F (46.7C). ). Some areas of the interior managed to reach 118F (47.8C).
Conditions in a corner of the US known for its mild, often warm summers puzzled residents.
Roads cracked and sagged from the heat, power lines melted, restaurants closed. Hospitals suddenly found overwhelmed, and several hundred people are believed to have died from the heat. A little north off the coast of Vancouver, an estimated 1 billion sea creatures perished, while defenseless mussels and clams cooked in their own shells.
“We looked at the forecasts and it was hard to believe since we don’t really have heat waves like that. Seattle tends to be so cloudy during June that we call it June January, ”said Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington who knew the heat wave was severe when she woke up at 6 a.m. with the temperature already in 80 ° F. “You see heat waves hit other places and you know it’s bad, but there’s no sense of urgency until it hits you.”
An old joke in Seattle is that you will meet more people with a boat than people with air conditioning and the latest figures show only 44% of homes in the city are equipped with air conditioning. The image of the Pacific Northwest as a place of rugged natural beauty, pleasant climates, and forward-thinking politics has helped attract many newcomers – Seattle was the fastest-growing large city in America. last year – but the monstrous heat wave has given a sobering reality check to its burgeoning state as a haven.
“There are a lot of people who are moving from California with the idea that there are a lot of natural conveniences and a lot of cheap space, but all of these factors are changing,” said Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Tulane University. “It is becoming less affordable and increasingly burdened by wildfires, terrible smoke, flash floods and these heat waves that suddenly make things a matter of life and death.”
The Pacific Northwest has warmed by an average of 2F (1.1C) over the past century, with growing forest fires, a breakdown of coastal fisheries, retreating snow cover and increasing heat taking its toll in a region historically unprepared for such extremes. The recent heat wave would have been “practically impossible” without human-induced climate collapse, scientists has said.
Communities in the Northwest face a “monumental task” in adapting to this changing reality, Keenan said, which requires upgrading homes, businesses and public buildings with adequate cooling, increasing shade with more tree coverage, making surfaces urban areas are more reflective for heat and retrofitting a poorly equipped electrical network for large power surges in summer.
“There is a very rapid change in the weather taking place and right now they are not well prepared for extreme heat,” Keenan said. “People are finally feeling the pain of it.”
Oregon was supposed to be a quiet haven for Steven Mana’oakamai Johnson, who moved to the state in 2017 after witnessing his home in Saipan, part of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, threatened by increasingly powerful typhoons by ocean warming. and environment.
But when the heat wave hit, Johnson, his partner and their dog had to flee their Corvallis apartment, which has no air conditioning, to stay on the Oregon coast in an attempt to cool off. The rising heat, which followed wildfires that raged nearby last year, has forced Johnson to revise his previous assumptions.
“I always thought this was a comfortable place, that it could even be a host state for climate migrants,” said Johnson, a biologist. “But there has been a great awakening that things are moving faster than anticipated. It was shocking how hot it got and how long it took to cool down. “
Several of Johnson’s friends are among the many people now flooding local contractors with requests to install air conditioning.
“In just a few days, you’ve seen this big change in the way people think about adjusting,” he said. “My vision of Oregon has changed. It has been emphasized to me that climate change is inescapable: no matter where you are or when you go there, you have to think about it. No place is safe, no place is really a refuge. “
The calculation for some people is even more existential. A few hundred miles north of Seattle, the small Canadian town of Lytton was almost completely consumed by a rapidly moving wildfire on June 30, the day after it set an impressive new national temperature record of 121F (49.6 C), a huge jump from the previous record and higher than any temperature ever measured in Europe or South America.
Lytton is in a more arid inland area than British Columbia’s cooler coastline, and frequently gets scorching heat in the summer, although nothing approaching incredible extremes has endured this year. It is forcing some to think about its presence in what is supposed to be a safe corner of the world.
“I firmly believe that there will be more and more fires until there are no trees here,” said Jim Ryan, a computer programmer who has lived in Spence’s Bridge, a small town near Lytton, for the past 30 years. “Even if I don’t burn, do I want to spend every summer living in the smoke, in a more polluted place than in the big cities?”
Ash is still falling around Ryan’s house and in more recent summers a nearby wildfire has smothered his town, leaving his clothes smelling of smoke. “There were always fires before, but never that big, they never took off so fast,” he said.
“For me, it is climate change in action. I don’t really want to move, but I also don’t want to live here and shorten my life. That is something we are struggling with. However, the question is: where would we go? “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism