Dangerous Heat Wave Is Literally Melting Critical Infrastructure in Pacific Northwest

Dangerous Heat Wave Is Literally Melting Critical Infrastructure in Pacific Northwest
A paramedic shields his eyes while treating a man experiencing heat exposure during a heat wave, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Salem, Oregon. (Photo: Nathan Howard, AP)

Power cables are melting. School districts are closing. Asphalt is too hot to touch. The heat wave roasting the Pacific Northwest is putting infrastructure at risk, and temperatures are expected to continue to rise on Monday. The failures show the staggering toll the climate crisis is already taking — and they’re a stark warning for the future if we don’t shore up roads, buildings, and other infrastructure central to modern life.

A region from California to British Columbia saw record-breaking temperatures over the weekend due to a sweltering heat dome. The heat is so rare that it’s expected just once in 1,000 years. That’s left the region largely unprepared for the intensity and relentlessness of the heat. Infrastructure, from schools and streets to air conditioning and the power grid, is constructed with the Pacific Northwest’s typical moderate heat in mind. But that’s the climate of the past, and the one of the future is just getting started.

The temperature records falling now will become more commonplace in the future. Without adapting, more and more people will be at risk of suffering. The safest place to be amid that level of oppressive triple-digit heat in the Pacific Northwest is indoors with the air conditioning cranked. But since they’re built for cooler weather, more than half of all homes in Seattle aren’t outfitted with cooling technology at all.

“Currently, we have a relatively limited incorporation of cooling technologies in [Pacific Northwest] households,” Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University, wrote in an email. “While most commercial [buildings] and businesses have them, people don’t generally sleep in those spaces. Households in Seattle have about 30% central AC, and in Portland it is about 60%, with rural areas having far less. Those with pre-existing health conditions, older adults, and also anybody living in apartment complexes are also very vulnerable to this heat.”

Heat waves are the deadliest form of extreme weather, and this one is especially dangerous because the high temperatures are persisting overnight in the region. By 8 a.m. Monday morning, it was already 32.2 degrees Celsius in Seattle. Nights usually provide important relief from the scorching daytime temperatures, but that’s increasingly not the case.

Many are looking to find air-conditioned hotel rooms in search of respite, but rooms are filling up fast. They may also be inaccessible to some particularly vulnerable populations, like people experiencing homelessness. Cities are also opening up more public cooling centres, but capacity is limited. Another option, of course, is to buy an air conditioner, but supplies are running low: Salem, Oregon ran out of air conditioning units to buy before the heat wave even began. This also may not be possible for everyone.

“The procurement and use of cooling technologies are generally expensive, and even if people are able to purchase them, then running them is also expensive, which is cost-prohibitive for those who are struggling with bills,’ said Shandas.

Outside the home, the heat is posing infrastructural issues, too. On Sunday, Portland was forced to suspend its streetcar service because the searing temperatures melted the line’s power cables. That’s particularly bad news for those who don’t have cars and rely on the streetcar service to get to work or to cooling centres.

“Additionally, the ability to use a car when it’s hot requires an engine that doesn’t overheat, and often communities with older or vulnerable engines may not be able to find cooling resources, such as cooling centres that are far from their home and away from public transit,” said Shandas.

The absurdly hot weather is also putting additional stress on power grids since more people are inside running air conditioning and other equipment. With more heat on the way on Monday, the pressure could get even worse.

“Power grids are designed around historical norms, and when we get these abnormal temperatures, the strain on the grid is unprecedented,” said Shandas. One dozen power outages have already occurred in the Northwest amid the heat wave, and Shandas noted that these shutoffs “then create potential impacts on accessing cooling resources, particularly at night when people are most vulnerable to urban heat.”

The heat wave is also affecting places as far north as Canada. On Sunday, the country saw its all-time high when Lytton, British Columbia reached at 46.1 degrees Celsius. This heat has forced 15 school districts to cancel full days of elementary classes because they lack the infrastructure to keep students cool enough to learn.

Climate scientists have warned that these heat waves would begin affecting traditionally cool places. Now, it’s clear they’re here and that infrastructure needs major upgrades to withstand these new normals.

“Short term: we need to get people cooling resources — whether that be accessing cooling centres, AC technologies including batteries based on solar, and people to become more familiar with what is vulnerable near their homes,” said Shandas. “Medium-longer term, we need to prioritise historically marginalised populations in funding cooling systems, including the creation of codes that require developers to install cooling technologies into affordable buildings.”

Electricity, school systems, and other infrastructure must also be overhauled to withstand the pressures of our climate future, and it’s increasingly clear that the time to do so is now. American infrastructure currently has a C- grade from the American Society for Civil Engineers, and that’s even before accounting for the climate crisis is putting further stress on it. Jean Su, the energy justice program director at the Centre for Biological Diversity, noted in an email that among other things, the heat wave — as well as other extreme weather catastrophes like the Texas blackout earlier this year — show the need to “rapidly transition off of fossil fuels and build a resilient energy system that starts with rooftop and community solar and storage.”

Congress has a chance to make crucial investments to prepare infrastructure not just in the Northwest but across the country for the cliamte crisis in the coming infrastructure bill. But in negotiations, senators seem to be letting issues like climate adaptation fall by the wayside in favour of nebulous concepts like bipartisanship. On Monday, 500 youth activists with the Sunrise Movement and Rep. Jamaal Bowman rallied outside the White House to demand an infrastructure package that adequately addresses the changes needed to keep people safe in our changing climate.

“This is not a one-in-a-lifetime event,” Deepti Singh, assistant professor at Washington State University, Vancouver, said. “These are conditions that are likely to recur, potentially quite frequently, in our near future because of increasing global warming. … So, our infrastructure development needs to account for the changing climate conditions and our communities, public officials and we as individual[s] need to be prepared to cope with severe heatwaves and other impacts of climate change that we are currently vulnerable to.”