Future Tense

The Record-Breaking High Temperatures Aren’t Even the Worst Part of the Pacific Northwest Heat Wave

A woman under a blanket cuddles with one dog while another sits right next to them.
Austun Wilde rests with her two dogs, Bird Is The Wurd and Fenrir, at a cooling center in the Oregon Convention Center on Sunday in Portland. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

In Seattle, it’s well-known that you can’t count on summer weather until after the Fourth of July. While our friends elsewhere plan sunny barbecues and beach trips, we expect summer to kick off with a couple weeks of gloom and drizzle, which locals lovingly call “Juneuary.”

But not this year. Instead, the U.S. Pacific Northwest and western Canada are experiencing an unprecedented heat wave. On Saturday, Seattle tied its all-time heat record of 103 degrees. On Sunday, we broke that record, and on Monday, we broke it again with a high of 108 degrees. It’s so hot that our light rail trains are running slower because tracks are too hot, and asphalt has buckled in the heat. Portland also set a new all-time record with 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and over the weekend, countless other cities across the Pacific Northwest broke records for hottest June temperatures and all-time high records. Canada—yes, the entire country—has a new all-time high of a blistering 47.5 degrees Celsius, or around 118 degrees Fahrenheit, in Lytton, British Columbia. Naturally, people are comparing these temperatures to those in other cities known for hot summers: Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston. Yes, those places also get hot (though if we’re keeping track, Portland’s high record now beats Houston’s, and Lytton’s beats Vegas’). But what’s noteworthy about this heat wave is that this is wildly atypical for the region, and we are simply not prepared for such heat.

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Let’s take Seattle, for instance, where the majority of homes don’t have air conditioning.
For the most part, we simply don’t need it; there are typically a few 90-degree days scattered throughout the summer, but they’re bearable enough if you’ve got a fan and some ice water to rig up a makeshift cooling system. As the weather has gotten hotter, more Seattleites have given in to the lure of cool air: Between 2013 and 2019, the number of air-conditioned homes in the area jumped from 31 percent to 44 percent, but we’re still the least air-conditioned metro area. Given that excessive heat kills hundreds of people a year, many people in the northwest could be at risk.

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The 56 percent of Seattleites who lack air conditioning, including me, are discovering that ye olde fan-and-ice-water trick is no match for this record-setting heat. (In fact, at some temperatures, fans are detrimental; according to a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, it works like a convection oven.) People are sharing other tips, like covering windows as much as possible—but in the winter, sun comes at a premium, so many folks lack window shades. Now, people are using blankets, sheets, or even aluminum foil, but my favorite creative solution came from climate scientist Harriet Morgan, who used signs from a climate protest to keep the sun out.

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Despite these interventions, homes are still sweltering; on Sunday afternoon, my apartment reached 92 degrees. My family visited a local museum and the library to hide out from the heat, and as we blissfully walked around these cool spaces, I was grateful this heat wave didn’t happen a year earlier, at a time when gathering indoors was riskier for the completely unvaccinated public. The city has opened cooling shelters, and other air-conditioned spaces, including a local funeral home, have opened their doors to those seeking refuge. In an effort to get people to safety, the Seattle Parks Department was even advertising deals from a local mall. But not all businesses could capitalize on people looking for relief. Many independent restaurants and stores here also lack cooling, leading some to close for the safety of their employees.

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News reports have been focusing on how this heat wave has brought all-time high temperatures, but another type of record has made things unbearable: the highest-ever low temperatures. Usually, Seattle evenings are chilly, so even during a heat wave, you can count on opening up your windows and letting fresh air into your house to cool things down. But recently, Seattle’s low early-morning temperatures have only cooled to around 73 degrees. For comparison, consider that Seattle’s average high temperature for June is just under 70 degrees; that means our current low is hotter than our usual high.

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If it were just one freakishly hot day, it’d be more bearable, but this hot spell is relentless. Before this year, Seattle has seen just three days at or over 100 degrees since 1894. Now we have had three 100-plus-degree days in a row. As a result, many of us are having trouble falling asleep and staying comfortable; some friends have been sleeping outside, only to be woken up by the 5:14 a.m. sunrise. (Oh right, did I mention that this is the time of year we get 16 hours of sunlight? This meme sums it up pretty well.) Many others don’t have a choice, particularly the roughly 4,000 Seattleites who live outside, many of whom are worried about how they’ll survive the week. While cooling centers remain an option, people who are unhoused face barriers that housed people do not; for instance, leaving your belongings unattended could mean never seeing them again, and that’s a risk some people are understandably reluctant to take.

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Beyond the immediate physical toll of a heat wave, it takes a mental toll, too. At first, I thought my lethargy and irritability were the result of being overheated and sticky all day, but then I remembered that I love being overheated and sticky if it means I’m biking around town, hiking, or seeing an outdoor concert. Instead, though, I was stuck inside, with all the blinds drawn and still sweltering, grappling with the realization that the place I call home is rapidly changing. Some of that lethargy came from a feeling of helplessness; some of that irritability was grief and anger.

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When I first moved here from Northern California (sorry, Seattleites—yes, I am one of those people), friends asked how I’d handle all the rain and chill. “Just wait five years and Seattle will be the new Bay Area,” I joked. It’s now been seven years, and the evidence of climate change in the region have been adding up: In 2020, we, along with the rest of the Western U.S., experienced an unprecedented wildfire season. Extreme storms, bringing inches of precipitation, are taking the place of the light drizzle typical of the area. (Back in California, things are not great, either; the Russian River is drying up amid a serious drought, and the state’s snowpack is at zero percent of its typical levels as of June 1.) If Mother Nature was dropping hints that we’re living through climate change, she’s no longer being subtle; this week feels like the most in-your-face incarnation of an environmental emergency. What better evidence of “global warming” than a record-breaking heat wave?

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As much as I’d love to think this heat wave is a freak occurrence, unprecedented weather is the new normal, and this is just the beginning. So far, the planet has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius, but we’re still on track for another 2 degrees of warming. Some days, I’m pessimistic that we can slow climate change: A recently leaked copy of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns that we might soon reach “tipping points” from which the climate will never recover. Others, there’s reason for hope; Congress seems on track to pass new climate legislation limiting methane emissions, and all the while, scientists and climate activists are working tirelessly toward mitigation. The biggest question of our time is whether we’ll move quickly enough to avoid destroying our collective home—and for the 13 million Americans who were under an excessive heat warning last weekend, this heat wave brings those stakes to the forefront.

Either way, I guess I should look into buying an air conditioner.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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