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Environment, Energy and Transportation

2021 delivered ‘warning signs of things to come’ for Pacific Northwest summers

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
An unnamed man slumps over a garbage can as the temperature rises to over 110 degrees in Portland, June 28, 2021.

Oregon is working on how to be better prepared for excessive heat waves, as climate scientists predict the region will continue to experience warmer-than-normal weather, especially during the summer months.

The Pacific Northwest endured some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded last June, with some areas in Oregon reaching as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

On June 28, Portland saw an all-time record high temperature of 116 degrees. The Columbia Gorge, Hillsboro and Salem also hit all-time record highs that day. The cause for the excessive heat? A high pressure system settled over the region, forming a “heat dome” that trapped hot air over the region from June 24 to June 29.

June’s unprecedented heat didn’t just send people into a frenzy to buy portable AC units. It also delivered a brutal wake-up call that climate change is here.

For more than two centuries, the global burning of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum has released carbon into the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming the planet. Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, storms are becoming more extreme. And the types of “once in a lifetime” extreme heat events that occurred in the Northwest last summer are expected to become more common.

That’s according to Oregon State University professor and climatologist Chris Daly, among others. He called the heat dome frightening and unexpected — not just because of the extreme temperatures, but also because it hit the region just as summer was arriving. Residents had no time to get acclimated to the warmer summer months. Overnight temperatures were also the highest lows ever recorded during this time, leaving little to no relief from the excessive heat during the day.

“Back then in the 1990s, it was pretty common knowledge that summer didn’t start until after the 4th of July,” Daly said. “What I’m seeing in the last few years, not every year… summer has started early.”

Daly, who has created 30-year climate model maps to predict weather forecasts, said new models show there has been a one-degree Fahrenheit increase in the Pacific Northwest during the months of July and August. He also said the climate models also show a 30% to 50% decrease in summer rain.

“That’s pretty substantial,” Daly said. “We don’t get much in the summer anyway, so the actual numbers are kind of small. But if you figure that we were getting maybe an inch and a half in precipitation in July and August, that’s maybe cut by a half or by a third.”

The warming temperatures and drier weather are a double whammy for plants, trees, and animals that depend on that water during those summer months, Daly said. But he doesn’t expect the region will experience the heat intensity every year.

“I think that what we’re seeing are warning signs of things to come and we need to start preparing to deal with these events that we call unusual now becoming more and more commonplace,” he said.

Record breaking death counts and hospital visits

The Northwest’s lack of readiness brought deadly consequences. According to the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office’s official count, 96 people died from heat-related illnesses during that time, with 69 of those deaths occurring in Multnomah County.

More than half of those who died in Multnomah County were older adults. Many of them were found alone in their homes. None of those who died had central air and only eight had a portable air conditioning unit, according to the county.

Recent data also shows a drastic increase in the amount of people seeking emergency help. According to Multnomah County’s Healthy Homes and Communities Supervisor Brendon Haggerty, during a normal summer in Multnomah county about 100 people visit emergency rooms for heat related illnesses. During just the few days of the heat dome event, he said hospitals saw more than 150 heat-related visits.

Worker protections

Earlier in the year, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, or Oregon OSHA, started working on rules to protect people who work outside of climate-controlled settings during a heat wave or a wildfire smoke event. When the heat wave hit the region, advocates called on the agency to adopt temporary rules after a farmworker died from heat-related illness on a farm north of Salem on June 26. At least three workers died of heat related illnesses while on the job due to the June heat wave.

In August, Oregon OSHA adopted two new temporary rules that include providing and ensuring workers have access to shade, cool drinking water, and providing extra breaks to cool down if temperatures exceed 90 degrees.

According to Oregon OSHA public information officer Aaron Corvin, the temporary rules are still in place and the agency is working on making the rules permanent sometime in the spring.

Short- and long-term solutions

Many city programs and local organizations are working on short- and long-term solutions to help be better prepared and protected against the effects of climate change. One of these programs is the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF). It allocates millions into community projects that address climate change and advance the causes of racial and social justice. The fund’s Jaimes Valdez said the program was able to create the Portland Heat Response Program to quickly provide efficient cooling equipment, like heat pump air conditioning units, to save lives when the next heat wave comes around.

A woman who goes only by Jamie, Tyson Morlock, and a woman who goes by Queenie play with a dog named Prince in a swimming pool at a homeless camp under an overpass during a record setting heat wave on June 29, 2021, in Southeast Portland.
Jonathan Levinson /
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A woman who goes only by Jamie, Tyson Morlock, and a woman who goes by Queenie play with a dog named Prince in a swimming pool at a homeless camp under an overpass during a record setting heat wave on June 29, 2021, in Southeast Portland.


“These portable heat pump cooling units are about the size of a mini fridge and they plug into the wall,” said Valdez, the PCEF’s organizational development and policy manager. “These can be installed in most situations and in a variety of different types of windows.”

PCEF Program Manager Sam Baraso said despite planning efforts to be better prepared, climate change is coming faster than planned and it’s bringing to the forefront conversation about how to help people adapt.

“It gives us an ability to think more holistically, to think about how our communities are able to connect, stay connected and how we’re able to build a fabric across are multiple issues and make sure that resiliency is thought of in that way; that it is about community connections,” he said.

Longer-term solutions include updating building codes to reflect the impacts of climate change, said Jola Ajibade, who is an assistant professor of geology at Portland State University. That could mean requiring developers to build in air-conditioning or requiring more greenspace to prevent concrete and asphalt surroundings from creating unbearably hot “heat islands,”

Ajibade said some current policies are so dated they aren’t relevant when events like the heat wave happen.

“There are a variety of things that we need to do with the information that the climate scientists have shared with us,” she said. “I think we need to make sure our policy is catching up with science.”

That includes institutional changes she said, like creating an agency or department that would be responsible for dealing with all things climate change. The idea, she said, is to ensure all Oregon counties follow similar policies when it comes to emergencies.

Most importantly, Ajibade said, there needs to be better ways to educate the public about climate change events like flooding, heat waves and wildfires before they occur so people are better prepared to protect themselves.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.