The Pacific Northwest is enduring searing heat at the end of this week, a little over a month after multiple days of record-breaking temperatures killed hundreds of people in the region.
In Portland, Oregon on Thursday, the thermometer hit 38.9 degrees Celsius — hotter than Phoenix, Arizona, which experienced a lower-than-usual 38 degrees Celsius day. That heat is close to Portland’s daily temperature record for August 12 set in 1977, which is 40 degrees Celsius. Other places set new records: in Bellingham, Washington, some 418 km north of Portland, temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius for the first time. There’s a possibility that Portland on Friday could see temperatures that break the August 13 heat record of 38.8 degrees Celsius.
These numbers are really high for the area — the average highs for Portland in August are usually between 27.2 and 28.9 degrees Celsius. But they aren’t close to the eye-popping records we saw back in late June and early July, when Portland saw temperatures of 46.1 degrees Celsius.
“This event, three days of it in a row, is a very noteworthy event for this region and is relatively rare,” Colby Neuman, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Portland, told the Wall Street Journal. “But it’s not the three days of all-time record high temperatures that we had in late June. It’s hard to look at it in a positive light, but it’s at least not that bad.”
Still, the atypical heat is bad news for the region, where air conditioning is not as common as in other areas of the country and social services are generally unprepared. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency earlier this week that will last through August 20, following worries that the heat could strain the grid and create a public health crisis.
In Portland, the AP reported that cooling centres were reopening and volunteers were working to hand out water and other supplies to people in need. The area is generally not prepared for this type of heat: only one in five households in Portland have air conditioning. Portland generally only gets one day above 37.8 degrees Celsius each year, but Friday will likely be the sixth this year, following 100-plus-degree temps on Wednesday and Thursday.
“This would be kind of a heatwave that maybe we experience every two to three years in the past, but this will be the second strong one this summer,” Larry O’Neill, Oregon’s state climatologist, told The Guardian. “Each consecutive day that we have over [38-degree] weather is when the impacts really compound and we start to see more and more adverse impacts on public health and also on agricultural livestock production, things like that.”
The heat wave that hit earlier this summer was devastating to those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, especially houseless people and those who couldn’t afford supplies. While officials were still updating their death tolls for the event in mid-July, a New York Times analysis published earlier this week estimated that around 600 people in the region died due to the heatwave — around three times official counts. An analysis of the heat event published last month found that climate change made the extreme heat more than 150 times more likely to occur.
This heat wave isn’t just confined to the Pacific Northwest. Millions of Americans across the country have been under a heat advisory this week, from the Midwest to the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, with high temperatures lasting through Friday and possibly into the weekend. This type of heat isn’t likely to slow down any time soon. The IPCC report released earlier this week found that we’ve already warmed the earth enough that intense heat waves, which previously would only come once every 50 years, can now be expected around once per decade. And once we hit 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which the report expects will happen in the next two decades, things will get even worse: Those 50-year heat waves would become 8.5 times more likely and 2 degrees Celsius hotter.
But the heat could always get worse if we do nothing. If the world keeps on its current emissions trajectory, those 50-year heat events could become normal and get around 5.3 degrees Celsius hotter. Even if countries fulfil all their current emissions pledges — a middle-of-the-road scenario — the climate impacts would be “so severe that we’ll refer to Hurricane Harvey, the PNW heatwave, and the California fires as ‘the good ol’ days’” as Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M, told Gizmodo in an email earlier this month.