Deadly Summer Heatwaves are Hotter Than Ever

Deadly Summer Heatwaves

Ongoing heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, Europe, across Siberia, and even the Arctic are the most recent examples of extreme weather, long predicted by experts as a consequence of climate change. Such events not only threaten our electricity and public health, they also threaten our physical infrastructure. In response, President Biden and Congress are moving forward with a $579 billion infrastructure package to update, upgrade, and prepare our infrastructure for the worst. Similarly, the European Union recently approved a law that would make the bloc's emission reduction targets legally binding.

A Deadly Hot Summer Out West

While Seattle saw temperatures of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, Portland has been hit particularly hard by recent heatwaves with a record-breaking high of 115 degrees. Up north, British Columbia saw a daily high of 116 degrees. In response, Portland's streetcar and light rail services temporarily suspended all operations, citing pressure on the power grid and overheating wires. Portland Streetcar even Tweeted an image of some of its cables warping from the heat. Across the city, cooling centers have been opened for those in need, some of which are located near Light Rail stops for accessibility. Meanwhile, buckling pavement in five different locations along I-5 resulted in lane closures and emergency repairs.

Extreme heat is not just uncomfortable -- it's also deadly. Hundreds of people have now died as a result of a heatwave that scorched the Pacific Northwest (PNW) this past week. As of July 1st, 63 died in Oregon, and British Columbia reported 486 deaths between June 25th and July 1st alone.

NASA: This map shows land surface temperatures on June 25 in Washington. The data show that around noon on that day, surface temperatures in Seattle reached 120°F (49°C), and the worst was yet to come. By June 26, excessive heat warnings were in place across Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.

NASA: This map shows air temperature anomalies across the continental United States and Canada on June 27, 2021, when the heat intensified and records started to fall. The map is derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System model and depicts air temperatures at 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) above the ground. Red areas are where air temperatures climbed more than 27°F (15°C) higher than the 2014-2020 average for the same day.

The West is also facing the longest drought in recorded history, and future heat domes will likely become more extreme. Each year, heat kills 12,000 people in the US, where BIPOC and poor communities are the most at risk.

On June 30th, President Biden and Vice-President Harris met virtually with governors of Western states to discuss the historic heatwave and raging wildfires that threaten the region. "Right now, we have to act and act fast. We're late in the game here," said the President. "The truth is we're playing catch up. This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that's going to change if we have anything to do with it."

The White House announced that the recent bipartisan infrastructure agreement would include $50 billion to fight wildfires and drought.

Image: NOAA

Europe and Even the Arctic Heat Up

Eastern Europe and Siberia are experiencing temperatures that residents and infrastructure aren’t prepared to endure. Moscow had the hottest June on record since 1901. Cities across the region, such as Kyiv, Budapest, and Sofia are poorly equipped to handle such heat and have been left to sweat out the record-highs.

Unless we curb our carbon emissions, things are going to get worse. As Sir David King, the former UK chief scientific adviser, said to The Guardian: "Nowhere is safe … who would have predicted a temperature of 48/49C [118.4/120.2 degrees] in British Columbia?"

Further north, temperatures in the Arctic Circle rose to nearly 90 degrees this June. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, in part because its sea ice is melting. This year, the Laptev Sea's ice coverage and overall sea ice are at record lows, and existing sea ice is thinning faster than expected.

A hotter Arctic has global consequences -- Pacific Ocean heating and changes in the jet stream -- which likely played a role in the recent PNW heatwaves.

Yup, It's Climate Change

Climate change makes heatwaves longer, more frequent, and more intense -- up to 3 billion people will live in extreme heat by 2070. As Nikos Christidis, a senior scientist at the Met Office in the UK, told Bloomberg: "The frequency of this kind of extremely hot summers is increasing because of the influence of humans in the planet's climate. How much and how severe the impacts are going to be depends on the levels of adaptation in each particular country."

Climate scientist Michael Mann and science communicator Susan Joy Hassol wrote recently in the New York Times, "Might a heat dome have developed out West this past week without climate change? Sure. Might it have been as extreme as what we're witnessing without climate change? Almost surely not."

PBS: A leaked UN report warns 'worst is yet to come' on climate change, June 23, 2021.

USA Today: Megadrought, water shortage, global warming threatens US Southwest, June 30, 2021.