“Like someone throws fire in your face”: heat wave engulfs Pacific Northwest and Canada

When Caleb Coder helped set up an emergency shelter in the US city of Portland in February, the goal was to provide a place of refuge during what was a severe winter storm.

Five months later, the same Sunrise Center building is being used for the exact opposite reason: as a refuge from the devastating and record-breaking heat wave that this week crippled not only the state of Oregon but much of the north. -western Pacific and Canada.

“People were literally crawling all the way to the Sunrise Center because it was so hot. They vomited, were burned and dehydrated, ”said Coder, whose Cultivate Initiatives supports vulnerable populations in the city.

“Hundreds of people came because we had water stations, foggers and a shower truck,” as temperatures hit 47C (116.6F). “If Sunrise hadn’t been there. . . », He decided. “It was saving.”

The unprecedented heat wave in this typically mild region, which has claimed hundreds of lives in British Columbia and dozens in Oregon and neighboring Washington state, is the latest in a growing list of weather events extremes that have hit the world.

Australia, California and Siberia have all recently experienced deadly wildfires caused by extreme heat. In Death Valley, Calif., It hit a frightening level of 53.2 ° C (127.7 ° F) last month, a record high for June.

Tracy Wallace was found by a volunteer and taken to the Sunrise Center in Portland, Oregon © Alisha Jucevic / The Washington Post / Getty Images

The increased frequency of such weather events raises serious questions, especially whether humanity is prepared for the consequences of global warming and whether society can recalibrate for a warmer planet.

The United States, in particular, has suffered a savage combination of heat waves, droughts and wildfires in recent years, straining its infrastructure and prompting promises of action from President Joe Biden.

In Canada, British Columbia suffered record high temperatures, with the town of Lytton reaching a high of 49.6 ° C (121.2 ° F) on Tuesday – the day before residents were evacuated amid raging wildfires were devastating the city.

Wildfire burns in mountains north of Lytton, British Columbia
A forest fire is burning in the mountains north of Lytton © Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press / AP

“There is an emerging consensus that this is kind of a new normal,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, health manager for the Tri-County Region of Oregon. In addition to this week’s heatwave, she highlighted February’s “snow pocalypse” and last year’s forest fires which heavily polluted the city’s air.

“How are we going to structure ourselves in our responses, given the intensity, frequency and sense of urgency that we have faced literally every few months over the past year? ”

The scorching temperatures in the United States and Canada this week were caused by an area of ​​high atmospheric pressure known as the “heat dome.” These conditions arise when the jet stream, a band of air moving rapidly high in the atmosphere, develops a large wave pattern that holds the dome locked in place.

Graphic explaining what a

Scientists are studying whether climate change is contributing to the unusual behavior of the jet stream. Global warming has raised the average temperature of the planet, which is about 1.2 ° C higher than in 1850. Although heat waves are not new, they are becoming much more extreme because of this. wider warming trend.

On the ground in the Northwestern United States, the effects this week have been ruthless. The heat wave killed about 80 people in Oregon and at least 20 in Washington, officials said. Figures that are likely to climb in the coming days. In Canada, the death toll is believed to number in the hundreds.

The weather event exposed the vulnerabilities of critical urban infrastructure and the operations of local businesses. The streetcar service in Portland had to be suspended for several days this week after its the cables started to melt in the fire.

A masked woman walks through the door of a cafe
Some businesses closed early due to the unprecedented heat wave in Portland © Maranie Staab / Reuters

In Washington, the roads started to crack and Ciarrah Piller, 18, said the refrigerators at the Subway sandwich chain where she works simply stopped due to the heat. “We had to throw it all out and close early, that was crazy.”

The soaring temperatures came as much of the west coast of the United States was already bracing for another wildfire season. Brad Udall, a climatology researcher at Colorado State University, said about half of the area destroyed by wildfires in the western United States in recent years was attributed to the effects of rising temperatures. by climate change.

The heat also intensified a 20-year “mega-drought” that worsened the region’s water crisis. In addition to causing more evaporation from reservoirs, rising temperatures dry out the soil and increase the amount of water taken up by plants, thereby reducing runoff.

People using dry ice to cool water
Portland residents used dry ice to cool water due to an ice shortage during the unprecedented heat wave © Maranie Staab / Reuters

“What we’re seeing in the American West is long-term warming and drying up,” Udall said, with temperature increases accounting for about half of the drop in water flow in the Colorado River since 2000.

The flow of the river, a vital water source for residents of California, Arizona and Nevada as well as for farmers, has declined by one-fifth since the turn of the century. “There are agricultural users who will not have enough water. It’s a very harsh reality, ”Udall said.

The increasingly common disruption has made many U.S. cities and industries question whether and how they can handle the inevitable future weather events.

People at the Oregon Convention Center cooling station in Portland

The Oregon Convention Center in Portland is used as a “cooling station” © Kathryn Elsesser / AFP / Getty

“How are we going to make the transition from our built environment to live in a much warmer world? Said Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the impact of climate change on human health. She added that the daily systems we rely on for a living must be “designed to operate in a much warmer environment.”

Ebi pointed out that most efforts to address climate change in the Pacific Northwest have focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than adapting to adapt to climate change. – and it was now urgent to focus on the latter.

The transition would likely mean increased demand for materials and construction methods that can withstand extremes, she added, as well as air conditioning – so far an unnecessary luxury in her corner of the United States.

However, air conditioning is a large consumer of energy which contributes to global warming. This week in Portland, such units were impossible to buy.

“You couldn’t find air conditioners in the stores, they had all sold them,” said Shamshulla Sharafi, a taxi driver who continued to work during the heatwave because his car, unlike his house, was air conditioned.

Fearing another heat wave, he described the conditions humanity may have to get used to: “It was like someone was throwing fire in your face.

Additional reporting by Leslie Hook in London

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