US north-west sees hottest day of dangerous heatwave

The hottest day of an unprecedented and dangerous heatwave scorched the Pacific north-west on Monday, with temperatures obliterating records set just the day before.

Seattle hit 108F (42C) by evening – well above Sunday’s all-time high of 104F (40C). Portland, Oregon, reached 115F (46C) after hitting new records of 108F (42C) on Saturday and 112F (44C) on Sunday.

The temperatures were unheard of in a region better known for rain, and where June has historically been referred to as “Juneuary” for its cool drizzle. Seattle’s average high temperature in June is about 70F (21.1C), and fewer than half of the city’s residents have air conditioning, according to US census data.

The heat forced schools and businesses to close to protect workers and guests, including some places like outdoor pools and ice-cream shops where people seek relief from the heat. Covid-19 testing sites and mobile vaccination units were out of service as well. The Seattle parks department closed one indoor community pool after the air inside became too hot.

The heatwave was caused by what meteorologists described as a dome of high pressure and worsened by the human-caused climate crisis, which is making such extreme weather events more likely and more intense.

Zeke Hausfather, a scientist at the climate-data nonprofit Berkeley Earth, said the Pacific north-west has warmed by about 3F (1.7C) in the past half-century. That means a heat wave now is about 3F warmer than it would have been before and the difference between 111F and 114F, especially for vulnerable populations, he noted.

“In a world without climate change, this still would have been a really extreme heat wave,” Hausfather said. “This is worse than the same event would have been 50 years ago, and notably so.“

The blistering heat hinted at the greater costs of climate change to come. Blackouts were reported throughout the region as people trying to keep cool with fans and air conditioners strained the power grid.

“We are not meant for this,” Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, said in an interview on MSNBC. “This is the beginning of a permanent emergency … we have to tackle the source of this problem, which is climate change.”

In Portland, light rail and street car service was suspended as power cables melted and electricity demand spiked. Heat-related expansion caused road pavement to buckle or pop loose in many areas, including on I5 in Seattle. Workers in tanker trucks in Seattle were hosing down drawbridges with water at least twice a day to prevent the steel from expanding in the heat and interfering with their opening and closing mechanisms.

The Democratic senator Maria Cantwell said the heat illustrated an urgent need for the upcoming federal infrastructure package to promote clean energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect people from extreme heat.

“Washington state was not built for triple-digit temperatures,” she said.

Officials opened cooling centers, including one in an Amazon meeting space in Seattle capable of holding 1,000 people. Officials urged people to stay hydrated, check on their neighbors and avoid strenuous activities. The closure of school buildings halted programs such as meal services for the needy, childcare and summer enrichment activities.

Orchardists in central Washington tried to save their cherry crops from the heat, using canopies, deploying sprinklers and sending out workers in the night to pick.

Alaska Airlines said it was providing “cool-down vans” for workers at Seattle-Tacoma and Portland international airports, where temperatures on the ramp can be 20F higher than elsewhere.

The heatwave stretched into Canadian British Columbia, with the temperature in the village of Lytton reaching 115F (46C), a new all-time high recorded in Canada.

In Multnomah county, Oregon, which includes Portland, nearly 60 outreach teams have worked since Friday to reach homeless people with water, electrolytes and information on keeping cool, said county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti.

The county had 43 emergency department and urgent care clinic visits for heat illness from Friday to Sunday. Typically, there would be just one or two, Sullivan-Springhetti said.

Dr Jennifer Vines, the Multnomah county health officer, said she believed there would be deaths.

“We are worried about elderly and we are certainly worried about people with frail health, but kids can also overheat easily,“ Vines said. “Even adults who are fit and healthy – in temperatures like these – have ended up in the emergency department.”

The heat was heading east: temperatures in Boise, Idaho, were expected to top 100F (38C) for at least seven days.

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