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Extreme Heat in the Pacific Northwest

Last week, 13 million people in the Pacific Northwest sweltered under what is being called the heat dome, an extreme heatwave that has boosted temperatures well above 100ºF, shattering previous temperature records. A heat dome happens when there is a high-pressure zone over a region, trapping the heat. Before last weekend, Seattle had only recorded three days in history over 100º, none of which were in June. Last Saturday, temperatures topped 102º. On Sunday, temperatures hit 104º, the hottest day ever recorded in Seattle, until Monday, when temperatures soared to an astounding 108º. While these temperatures are high, they are somewhat low compared to the temperatures of other places in the Northwest, because the water surrounding Seattle helps to regulate its climate. Parts of Washington state reached 115º, setting a new statewide all-time high, and the city of Portland, Oregon soared above its previous record when it got to 116º. In Canby, a small city in northwestern Oregon, temperatures rose all the way to 118º. Most of western Canada felt the heat too, as Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, hit 102º, and the small, inland town of Lytton, BC, reached 121º, shattering country-wide heat records. This extreme heat has caused around 500 deaths in British Columbia alone.

This heatwave is so bad because climate change is creating the right environment for occurrences like these. Since the 1960s, heat waves have become more common and hotter, and by 2050, scientists expect 20 to 30 more days over 90° in the U.S. If these trends continue until 2050, cities in the Northern Hemisphere will experience climates similar to today’s temperatures in cities more than 620 miles south.

These extreme temperatures have some huge environmental consequences. The temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest is not suited to such high temperatures, and many plants and animals will suffer. Since the average high temperature in June is 68°, much of the wildlife in the area simply cannot stand such high temperatures. This, compounded with the fact that there is less water during heatwaves, will literally leave many plants and animals to die. These dried-out plants are huge fire hazards, and with the fire season approaching, many are worried that this year’s fires could be even worse than last year’s.

This extreme heating is not only terrible for the environment, but it has other consequences because the Pacific Northwest never gets this hot. Only 44 percent of Seattle homes have central air or window units, making it the country’s least air-conditioned major metropolitan area. Seattle also has nearly 12,000 homeless people, and the city has struggled to create enough cooling centers for everyone. Soil moisture is also largely depleted in the Northwest, which harms the many forests in the region as well as the local rangelands and dryland crops that are already suffering from recent years’ heat.

Earlier this week, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, places that usually have temperatures over 100º this time of year, were drenched by heavy rainstorms. There was so much water being dropped onto this area that massive flash floods sparked all over, one of which even tore up the road through Zion National Park. It seems as though the climates of the desert of the Southwest and the forests of the Northwest have suddenly switched. As climate change progresses, huge heatwaves will be the norm, and freak storms, like the ones happening in the desert, will become much more common, leaving everyone unprepared. This is a huge warning of what climate change will bring, and we need to listen to our planet and act.

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