Cost of Climate Change

Firecracker Heatwave: Pacific Northwest

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Firecracker Heatwave: Pacific Northwest

When the weather is in the news, more often than not it’s not going to be a lighthearted highlight. And if you haven’t seen the headlines recently, spoiler alert: it’s not great news.

Locations in the Pacific Northwest suffered from blistering heat starting June 26th and persisted for about 4 days. Record temperatures were recorded across the region with Seattle, Washington recording temperatures of 41.7ºC and Portland, Oregon reached 44.4ºC on June 28th whilst Lytton, British Colombia hit 49.6ºC on June 29th (breaking an 83-year-old record). These records were broken by 5ºC in some areas; normally when records are broken, these happen at a fraction of a degree, thus the extent of the increase is noteworthy to say the least.

What caused this event was a big ol’ heat dome that took up residence over the Pacific Northwest. This manifested in a high pressure system that was trapped by the jet stream. These blocking patterns aren’t unusual, especially during La Niña years, however it is quite uncommon for them to happen so early in the season.

There are numerous consequences that can come from this heat. As this region has an average June maximum temperature of approximately 25ºC, ~adding 20ºC on top of that maximum is a significant amount of heat stress for humans, flora & fauna and infrastructure.

This region wasn’t built for temperatures like these. Unlike most parts of the United States, less than 40% of the population in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have air conditioning facilities and homes here have historically been designed to retain heat rather than shed heat. This had led to public places like libraries and shopping malls to become a form of refuge for civilians from the hellfire heat outside their walls.

However, with structures maxing out their air conditioning capacity and people increasing their intake and use of water, this takes up plenty of power and puts pressure on water supplies. Not only that, places in Washington and Oregon are seeing roads buckling and transportation networks have been knocked offline after cables melted in the heat. When extreme events like this occur in regions without the capacity to deal with the impacts, the capability for maxed out infrastructure to perform could reach a limit.

The warmth may lead to rapid snowmelt in mountainous areas where avalanches, landslides and flooding have a higher risk of occurring, but may also lead to the spread of wildfires. Although the Pacific Northwest is well known for its rainy weather, conditions have been quite dry as of late and the high temperatures have increased evaporative demand in soils, vegetation and water reservoirs. If a thunderstorm builds and strikes in the right spot, this could spark a wildfire. However, the majority of concern comes with the upcoming 4th of July weekend where authorities are requesting the public to refrain from using fireworks in these hot and dry areas of interest.

Unfortunately, no figures have been released about the economic impacts of this event, but I will leave you with Michael E Mann (leading climate scientist) and Susan Joy Hossol’s (director of Climate Communication) words: "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… Global warming has caused [heatwaves] to be hotter, larger, longer and more frequent. What were once very rare events are becoming more common."

Now, as promised in the last blog post, tune in a few weeks from now for a quick look at Global Agriculture and learn about how climate change is affecting not only growing patterns, but also geopolitical shifts.

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