5 ways the West is struggling to cope with historic heat waves

·11-min read

The summer of 2021 has been brutal in the western portions of North America, as oppressive heat has resulted in record high temperatures, extreme drought, raging wildfires and death.

Over the past month, record high temperatures have been reached at the airports in Las Vegas (117 degrees Fahrenheit) and Seattle-Tacoma (108), while it’s likely the record high for the state of Utah was also tied (117). Portland, Ore., broke its record high for three consecutive days in late June, eventually reaching 116 (the previous high, 107, was set in 1965). Canada had the same distinction, with the record climbing to 121, shattering the previous mark of 113 set in 1937.

As fighting climate change has emerged as a central issue in the negotiations on President Biden’s infrastructure bill, millions of Americans have struggled in recent weeks as unprecedented heat domes made worse by global warming have settled over the West. The historic heat wave, scientists agree, is linked to climate change, and comes one month after a draft report by the United Nations warned that “the worst is yet to come.” The present reality across much of the West, however, is proving to be its own challenge.

Here are a few aspects of the climate disaster from the last few weeks.

Hundreds of heat-related deaths

A child looks at his water bottle as the sun sets on June 15, 2021 in Los Angeles, California as temperatures soar in an early-season heatwave. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
A child looks at his water bottle as the sun sets on June 15 in Los Angeles, as temperatures soar in an early-season heat wave. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of deaths have been attributed to the record-breaking temperatures that scorched Oregon, Washington and British Columbia the last week of June. These areas, where average temperatures are usually in the 70s this time of year, were left unprepared to face the heat, which proved fatal for many residents.

Officials in Oregon put the death toll at 116, with most occurring in Multnomah County, the state’s most populous county, where officials say many victims had no air conditioners or fans and died alone.

“It’s really a tragedy, and a lesson that heat does kill,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Multnomah County health officer, according to the New York Times. “In general — we’re still sifting through the numbers — these were people found in very hot settings, basically alone, and by and large older people.”

Washington state’s death toll from the heat wave has risen to 78, which is double the amount of heat-related deaths the state faced across a five-year period. From 2015 to 2020, Washington recorded a total of 39 deaths from heat.

British Columbia’s heat-related deaths proved even more staggering.

“The 719 deaths reported is three times more than what would normally occur in the province during the same period,” Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner of the British Columbia Coroners Service, said in a statement.

During the late-June heat wave, the spike in heat-related deaths in Vancouver, British Columbia, stretched the city’s resources thin.

“Vancouver Police are redeploying dozens of officers and are pleading for people to only call 9-1-1 during emergencies, as heat-related deaths have depleted front-line resources and severely delayed response times throughout the city,” the Vancouver Police Department tweeted on June 29.

Washington state similarly faced strains on its frontline resources. Four hospitals temporarily lost power, and operating rooms were closed because some hospitals could not guarantee safe temperatures. Dr. Steve Mitchell, the medical director of Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, told the New York Times that the demand on hospital staff and infrastructure could be parallel to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health officials say the death tolls may increase as more medical examiners and coroners determine the cause of a number of other deaths. In Washington state, preliminary heat-related death counts are updated by county every Monday online.

An earlier and more extreme start to wildfire season

BECKWOURTH, UNITED STATES - 2021/07/09: Trees burning as the Beckwourth Complex fire approaches hwy 395.
The Beckwourth Complex fire continues to burn through the night. (Photo by Ty ONeil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Trees burn as the Beckwourth Complex Fire approaches Hwy. 395 in Northern California on Friday. (Ty ONeil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Record-breaking temperatures and extreme drought are a recipe for wildfires, experts say, and this year has once again proven that to be the case.

“Currently, 59 large fires have burned 863,976 acres in 12 states,” the National Interagency Fire Center said in a message posted Monday to its website. “Fire managers prepare for another day of record temperatures in many western states.”

To date, 1,953,681 acres have been burned since Jan. 1 of this year. Over the same span one year ago, 1,662,497 acres had burned, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

The largest active wildfire is Southern Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, which broke out on July 6 and has burned over 150,000 acres. The fire interrupted electrical lines that transmit power from Oregon to California, according to energy officials.

California’s largest wildfire of the year is the Beckwourth Complex Fire, which has consumed 89,748 acres and destroyed about 20 homes. Beckwourth, which as of Monday was 23 percent contained, consists of the Dotta and Sugar fires and is burning near the Nevada state line.

“While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year,” Cal Fire’s website states. “Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.”

Jacob Bendix, a Syracuse University professor, emphasized the role climate change plays in the wildfires.

“The exceptional fire weather this year and in recent years does not represent random bad luck,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It is among the results of our adding carbon to the atmosphere — results that were predictable, and indeed that have been predicted for decades.”

Wildfires have also been burning across Washington, Idaho, Arizona and New Mexico, all states in the grip of a worsening drought.

Workers in peril

Pedro Lucas (left), nephew of farm worker Sebastian Francisco Perez who died last weekend while working in an extreme heat wave, break up earth on Thursday, July, 1, 2021 near St. Paul, Ore. (Nathan Howard/AP Photo)
Pedro Lucas, left, nephew of farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, who died in June while working during an extreme heat wave, breaks up earth on July 1 near St. Paul, Ore. (Nathan Howard/AP)

Farmworkers are among those bearing the brunt of the heat, as Yahoo News’ David Knowles reported last week.

“Farmworkers really are at the frontlines of climate change,” Leydy Rangel, communications manager of the United Farm Workers Foundation, told Yahoo News. “Unfortunately, that’s an issue that will not get better. We know that heat is the No. 1 cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S.”

On June 26, Guatemalan immigrant Sebastian Francisco Perez died while working amid the heat at Ernst Nursery and Farms in rural Oregon. Following his death, Gov. Kate Brown directed the state’s workplace safety agency to implement rules designed to protect workers from extreme heat, writing, “While Oregon OSHA has been working to adopt permanent rules related to heat, it became clear that immediate action was necessary in order to protect Oregonians, especially those whose work is critical to keeping Oregon functioning and oftentimes must continue during extreme weather.”

Last week the state of Washington announced new emergency protections for workers, set to go into effect Tuesday. According to the new policy, when the temperature is at or above 100 degrees, employers must provide shade or sufficient means for employees to cool down and paid cool-down rest periods of at least 10 minutes every two hours. Other rules are in effect for when the temperature hits 89.

“The heat experienced in our state this year has reached catastrophic levels. The physical risk to individuals is significant, in particular those whose occupations have them outdoors all day,” said Gov. Jay Inslee. “Our state has rules in place to ensure these risks are mitigated, however, the real impacts of climate change have changed conditions since those rules were first written and we are responding.”

There is no federal legislation in place to protect farmworkers from intense heat, but the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019 and in the Senate earlier this year, would take steps to address the issue.

“Workers in California and across the country are too often exposed to dangerous heat conditions in the workplace. In the past year, Californians have faced extreme heat temperatures from wildfires, while trying to navigate the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic — risking the health and safety of our workers,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said in a statement when the bill was introduced. “This vital legislation will hold employers accountable and ensure workplace protections are put in place to prevent further heat stress illness and deaths from happening.”

Mass death of wildlife

A bird stands in a puddle in Bullhead City, Arizona, U.S., on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A bird in a puddle in Bullhead City, Ariz., on June 16. (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Over the weekend, researchers estimated that as many as 1 billion sea creatures may have died as a result of the combination of heat wave and drought.

Christopher Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia studying dead mussels along the West Vancouver coastline, compared it to “one of those postapocalyptic movies.” While the mussels can survive water temperatures of just over 100 degrees, temps reached over 120 degrees in some areas, but Harley’s worry was that his dire estimates were coming in too low.

The deaths of the mussels, which died in the intense conditions, could have considerable ripple effects on everything from aquatic plant life to sea ducks. Biologists in the Pacific Northwest are also dealing with a strain on the fish population, with some organizations prepared to truck them to spawning grounds if temperatures remain too high and water levels too low for their traditional river migration. Other scientists agreed with Harley’s assessment of the potential dominoes to fall and disasters to be found as more data becomes available.

“The craziest thing is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Malin Pinsky, an associate professor of marine biology at Rutgers University, told NPR. “We can see the mussels because they’re on the shoreline, but to a large extent, oceans are out of sight, out of mind, so we’re likely to learn the magnitude of what’s happening only much later.”

“When we see mussel beds disappearing, they’re the main structuring species, so they’re almost like the trees in the forest that are providing a habitat for other species, so it’s really obvious when a mussel bed disappears,” Brian Helmuth, a marine biology professor at Northeastern University, told CNN. “When we start seeing die-offs of other smaller animals, because they’re moving around, because they’re not so dense, it’s not quite as obvious.”

Worsening drought

BOULDER CITY, NV - JULY 1: The white “bathtub ring” around Lake Mead shows the record low water level as drought continues to worsen on July 1 near Boulder City, Nev. (David McNew/Getty Images)
The white “bathtub ring” around Lake Mead shows the record low water level as drought continues to worsen on July 1 near Boulder City, Nev. (David McNew/Getty Images)

With the high heat and lack of rain, many states across the West are also dealing with crippling drought. Last week California Gov. Gavin Newsom called on his state’s residents to reduce their water use by 15 percent, saying, “The realities of climate change are nowhere more apparent than in the increasingly frequent and severe drought challenges we face in the West and their devastating impacts on our communities, businesses and ecosystems.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that next month the federal government will likely declare the first-ever shortage at Lake Mead, which provides water to 25 million people as well as to vast swaths of farmland. That announcement would come with cuts to water usage in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. The lake is the nation’s largest reservoir, spanning the border of Arizona and Nevada.

“According to Merriam-Webster, a drought is a temporary condition,” said Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. What is happening, he suggested, is something more long-lasting and disturbing. “This is aridification.”

The region’s agriculture industry is preparing for the worst, with Idaho farmer Cordell Kress telling Reuters, “The general mood among farmers in my area is as dire as I’ve ever seen it. Something about a drought like this just wears on you. You see your blood, sweat and tears just slowly wither away and die.” The Salt Lake Tribune reported that 85 to 90 percent of the water in Utah goes to agriculture, putting farmers there on edge.

The U.S. Drought Monitor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln laid the situation out in stark terms in its update this week, declaring, “Another week of hot, dry weather once again led to worsening drought conditions across the Northwest. Temperatures as high as 17 degrees above normal set more high temperature records across the region. The excess heat continued to increase evaporative demand, dry out soils and vegetation, and strain water resources.”

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