The Heat Wave That Hit the Pacific Northwest

michael barbaro From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. [music] Today: Record-breaking climate extremes ar...


michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[music]

Today: Record-breaking climate extremes are blanketing the United States this summer — from heat, to drought, to wildfires. Astead Herndon spoke with our colleagues, Sergio Olmos, about the historic heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest, and to Henry Fountain about how much climate change is to blame.

It’s Wednesday, July 14.

astead herndon

Sergio, I feel like Portland has been basically at the center of every national news story recently.

sergio olmos

Well, we had a pretty extreme year in Portland. We had Covid shutdowns, 100 days of consecutive protests. Then we had historic wildfires where the sky just turned red. And then, finally, the city is starting to open back up again. Covid restrictions are starting to get lifted. People are starting to come out of their houses, go to restaurants, go to bars, and regular life was resuming a little bit. And then this massive heat wave just descends on the Pacific Northwest in late June.

archived recording

The Northwest bracing for record-breaking and potentially life-threatening heat this weekend. Dozens of records, some of them decades-old are expected to fall —

sergio olmos

It’s Oregon, Washington and parts of Western Canada, and it brings this punishing heat.

archived recording 1

Portland hit an all-time record high of 112 earlier today.

archived recording 2

Today in Portland, Oregon, temperatures soared to 114 degrees.

archived recording 3

Portland hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, making it one of the hottest places in the world.

sergio olmos

In Portland, we saw temperatures for three days in a row break record after record, and it finally got to 116 degrees.

archived recording

This is some serious heat. Average temperatures this time of year — lower and middle 70s. We’re talking about —

sergio olmos

You know, 116 degrees is like 40 degrees above what it should normally be for this time of the year.

astead herndon

Wow.

sergio olmos

And that’s 9 degrees above the previous record of 107.

archived recording

Many people that are not used to relying on air conditioning are needing to seek out cooling centers to stay safe.

sergio olmos

And so we see Portland thrown back into this state of emergency, right? Just like Covid or the protests, the wildfires — everything shuts down. No one’s outside. And this time, it’s a different catastrophe. It’s heat.

astead herndon

I know reporters have this weird experience, where people are staying in, and you run out. And I know that that is a reporter’s shared instinct. But can you describe what it was like over those last couple of weeks? What has it felt like, just physically being in that level of heat?

sergio olmos

Yeah it felt like, I walk out of the door, and the heat wave hits you. It’s like, OK. Feels like Vegas, right? But I’m in Portland. This is the Pacific Northwest, where it’s raining a lot of the time. It’s cool. It’s not a place you think of to buy an AC. It never gets that hot. We’re not used to this. 116-degree weather is something that — the health officer here for the county explained it that bodies acclimate to heat, but it takes time. You can’t just acclimate one day to the next, one week into the next. And so yeah, we’re not acclimated to that, and our infrastructure’s not built for it.

For instance, I was driving around, and just a few blocks from my house, in the middle of the road, the pavement just buckled. It cracked, and it rose up. And the city said it was heat-related. I don’t know anything about pavement, Astead, but I assume it wasn’t —

astead herndon

I’ve never seen it buckle, so you’ve already got me shocked. [LAUGHS]

sergio olmos

Public transportation here, right? So the city, ahead of time, was like, hey, public transportation is gonna be free this weekend. If you need to get to a cooling center or anything, just get on there. Don’t worry about paying for it. But as soon as the heat hit, the streetcars and the trains — they stopped them because the overhead wires for the light rail system were being strained. They were only designed to work in temperatures of up to 110 degrees. And the streetcars — the cables that power them were actually melting.

astead herndon

Wow.

sergio olmos

So the city of Portland paused all trains, all streetcars, at the time they needed them the most. So it was harder for some people just to get to the cooling centers.

And there’s a socioeconomic aspect to all this. There’s a professor at Portland State University named Vivek Shandas, and he studies climate adaptation. And during the heat wave, he went around Portland with a thermometer. It’s not the kind you buy at the store. It’s a scientific-grade thermometer. And he took measurements of different parts of Portland, and he found that the wealthiest parts of Portland were, in some cases, 98, 99 degrees. Right?

And then he went to the working class parts of Portland, parts of Portland where the highest concentration of people of color, historically, have been disinvested. So not a lot of sidewalk, not a lot of tree covers, a lot of it exposed to sun, and a lot of concrete that just absorbs the sun’s radiation. He found a reading of 121 degrees in the poorest neighborhoods in Portland.

[music]

And so if you look at that and look at the big picture here, the county released a map of where people died in the city. And in the poorest zip codes, the highest number of deaths occurred. And in the wealthiest zip codes, we had the lowest number of deaths occur.

astead herndon

And what do we know about the people who died? Who are there?

sergio olmos

Right now, at least 193 people have died across Oregon and Washington related to the heat. What we know is that many of the people who died were elderly, living alone, without air conditioning. Others were homeless, and others had underlying health conditions.

For example, there’s a story of an 84-year-old woman in Washington state, Dorothy Galliano, who was found dead in her home. She lived alone and had no air conditioning. A friend said that she was found with the window cracked open and the TV on, and she just imagined that Dorothy was watching TV, dozed off and just didn’t wake up.

Another woman, Debra Moore, was found collapsed on the sidewalk just a few steps from a house she was visiting. And the police said that she had serious, underlying health issues. You have the story of a houseless man, Joseph Wade Davis, who’s 64. And he had just this tent on the side of the road with PVC pipe and tarp. And he was just discovered dead at 10 a.m.

So it’s a mix of people. Obviously, the most vulnerable, elderly who were living alone without AC, homeless folks — these are the highest number. But there are other people, healthy adults, who also died, and some of them died at work.

sergio olmos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

Sebastian Francisco Perez — he was the first reported workplace fatality related to the heat. And he died in the Willamette Valley, where he lived and worked. And so I went there to learn more about him. And it’s like a farmland community there, where they grow a lot of fruit, trees and kind of the breadbasket of Oregon. And I eventually tracked down his brother-in-law and his nephew, and they were working in the field when I find them. And he tells me about Sebastian Francisco Perez.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

He came from Guatemala three months ago. He wanted to have children, but he couldn’t afford it in Guatemala. Lived just very austere conditions. They grew their food. They didn’t have any wages. Came here to try to get some money to start a family.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

And he owed a coyote — these are the people that help immigrants cross illegally — he owed them $8,000 for the crossing. Five to front, three after. And so he was desperate to work. And that Saturday, when it was extraordinarily hot — and a lot of farm workers could take the day off, took it.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

He asked to work.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

He was told by relatives, like, don’t do it. It’s too hot. He said, no, please. I need the money.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

That Saturday, he was moving irrigation lines in a field of trees, and his co-workers, other laborers, found him collapsed among the trees. And they called 911, but they couldn’t tell the operator where he was exactly. A lot of the laborers, a lot of them immigrants, they work from farm to farm, and they get brought in together. And they don’t necessarily know where they are all the time. So they called his nephew, and they said, hey, he’s collapsed on the ground. We don’t know what to do.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

He tells them, take him to the shade. I’m on my way.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

And —

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sergio olmos

Unfortunately, they couldn’t resuscitate him. He died that day.

speaker

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

[music]
sergio olmos

So this heat wave was kind of an opening salvo to what’s going to be a catastrophic season. The west is currently in the midst of a historic drought. Another heat wave is already sweeping across California and the southwest, and fire season has already begun here in Oregon. And this is unprecedented. This is the earliest in the year that I’ve covered a wildfire season. There’s a fire right now burning in Oregon. It’s uncontained. It’s already burned 150,000 acres as of Monday. And nobody expected the season to begin this early or already have been this destructive.

astead herndon

So from one climate disaster to the next?

sergio olmos

Yeah.

[music]
astead herndon

Thank you, Sergio.

sergio olmos

Thank you, Astead.

[music]
michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

astead herndon

OK, Henry, I’ve been speaking with our colleague who has been reporting on the heat waves out in the West. There was the record-breaking one that happened in June in the Pacific Northwest and another that’s underway in California. The question that’s running in the back of my head is, how much of what we’re seeing is related to climate change?

henry fountain

Well, you know, that’s the question that journalists and others always ask after a heat wave or other kind of extreme weather event. And it’s really a central question. So right after the late June heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, in fact, there was actually a group of scientists trying to figure that very question out.

archived recording (friederike otto)

Good morning, good afternoon. Thank you very much for joining.

henry fountain

This group is called World Weather Attribution, and they held a press conference on Zoom announcing their findings. It was led by Geert Jan van Oldenborgh and Friederike Otto.

archived recording (friederike otto)

In our study, we focus on the hottest day of the year, which is what broke the records and what you will have heard in the news. So the question immediately arose, what is the role of climate change in this event?

henry fountain

They try to figure out a link, if it exists, between the world that’s warming and these extreme events, like this really, really bad heat wave. And they try to do it really quickly.

archived recording (friederike otto)

We have done this study within a week, and everyone worked nights and weekends and really —

henry fountain

They think that getting it out when it’s still fresh in people’s minds would help people understand the problem.

astead herndon

And how exactly do they do that analysis? How do they measure the impact of climate change when it comes to a single event?

henry fountain

They use a lot of computers, basically, that run models of the world. They simulate the world. And they run some models with the world as it is today, which is, it’s warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit because we’ve poured all this CO2 into the atmosphere. They also run models of a world that would exist if we hadn’t pumped all that CO2 in the atmosphere — in other words, a world without warming. And then they compare the two results.

So for instance, if a heat wave like this had a 1 in 100 chance of occurring in any given year in a world that hadn’t warmed, and in a world that warmed it has a 1 in 10 chance of happening in a given year, then you know that climate change had an impact.

astead herndon

So when these scientists ran this model, what did they find?

henry fountain

Well, what you’ve got to understand about this heat wave — it was really off the charts. It was extraordinary.

archived recording (geert jan van oldenborgh)

We’ve never seen a jump in record temperature like the one in this heat wave, as far as I can remember.

henry fountain

And when they ran the analysis, the results were clear.

archived recording (friederike otto)

There is absolutely no doubt that climate change played a key role here.

henry fountain

This extreme heat wave in this place would have been impossible before we started warming the world.

archived recording (friederike otto)

It means that, without the additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such an event just does never occur. Or if it occurs, it occurs once in a million times, which is the statistical equivalent of never.

henry fountain

So it was still a rare event, but 100 years ago, it was an impossible event. And that’s because the world has warmed.

archived recording (friederike otto)

So heat waves are increasing in likelihood by orders of magnitude — more than any other type of extreme event.

henry fountain

And what these researchers have also found is that heat waves are more affected by climate change than any other extreme weather.

archived recording (friederike otto)

So for any other type of extreme event, we do see extreme rainfall or droughts. We do see an increase maybe by a factor of four, but for heat waves, we see orders of magnitude. So this event was made at least 150 times more likely.

henry fountain

And she said that heat waves, more than any other type of climate-related natural disaster, are not only more likely, but they also tend to kill more people.

archived recording (friederike otto)

And, yeah. And I think this is really — heat waves is how climate change kills us today. I think this is how climate change manifests most strongly.

henry fountain

Just think about it. A flood might affect a relatively small region, area near a river, whatever. But a heat wave can cover a huge amount of area. In this Pacific Northwest heat wave that ended in the end of June, everybody in Oregon, everybody in the state of Washington, and most of the people in British Columbia were affected. So I think the researchers estimated that that was something like nine million people, and that’s really a lot of potential victims of extreme heat. And so all of this has these scientists concerned.

archived recording (geert jan van oldenborgh)

We feel that we do not understand heat waves as well as we thought we did.

henry fountain

You know, I’ve covered a bunch of these attribution studies, and I’ve talked to a lot of scientists about them. And normally, it’s pretty straightforward. But there’s one thing Dr. Van Oldenborgh said that really struck me, and I frankly I kind of found it alarming.

archived recording (geert jan van oldenborgh)

I think most of us, or all of us, have just dialed down our certainty of how heat waves behave. We are much less certain about how the climate affects heat waves than we were two weeks ago.

henry fountain

Essentially, he said, like, after this heat wave, it was so unusual, so extreme, we’re not sure we really understand heat waves anymore. Like, it’s really kind of jolted us in our certainty of the way heat waves behave.

astead herndon

Henry, it sounds like what you’re saying is what really surprised you is the fact that the scientists themselves were surprised, and that they were saying the heat wave that was just experienced in the Northwest may have actually changed their understanding of how these operate. What exactly are we saying, though? How is this heat wave possibly different than ones that we have seen previously?

henry fountain

So what we’d expect with a kind of quote, unquote, “normal” heat wave is that, as the average baseline temperature goes up, you’d expect the hottest, record-breaking temperatures to go up at about the same rate more or less. But with this heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, the highest temperatures broke the record not by a couple of degrees, but by as many as 9 degrees.

So the scientists are trying to figure out what’s going on here, and they say there’s really only two possibilities.

archived recording (geert jan van oldenborgh)

The first one is the obvious one. It’s that it was just a really, really rare event, and this region was unlucky.

henry fountain

Maybe it’s just this confluence of bad luck, as they put it.

archived recording (geert jan van oldenborgh)

I mean, the Earth is a really huge place, and weird things happen or very improbable happen somewhere on Earth on a fairly regular basis.

henry fountain

The Pacific Northwest had a heat wave that was compounded by the drought that’s been going on in the West, and the jet stream was acting funny or whatever, and maybe that’s the case. And in that case, maybe it’s not such a concern.

archived recording (geert jan van oldenborgh)

The second possibility is that we could be past the threshold that made these kind of heat waves certainly much more likely.

henry fountain

But if it’s some other mechanism, some other threshold idea, that’s a concern. Maybe this one time of it now becomes once every five years or 10 years or once a year or whatever. So that’s the fundamental issue they’re trying to figure out. More and more, I think this heat wave is a big deal. It’s like a seminal event, really. Kind of like a big volcanic eruption or something, and it’s going to be studied for a long time because it was so unusual. And they’ve got to figure out why.

astead herndon

So what’s most alarming about their findings is that it could mean that we have hit a sort of tipping point.

henry fountain

It’s not necessarily that we’ve hit a tipping point. But the thing that really stuns a lot of climate scientists, and it certainly stuns a lot of people, is how fast things are happening. I’m guilty of this, too. I’ve been writing about climate change for a while, and it was always like, yeah, the big impacts are going to be in the middle of the century. Well, the big impacts are starting now. And it’s obvious now that the impacts are hitting us, but it seems like they’re sort of accelerating. So whether we’ve passed a tipping point or not, I don’t know. But we’re in a bad state right now where bad climate events are happening, and what we thought would happen in the future is happening now.

astead herndon

Hm. This makes me think back to the beginning of our conversation, when you were talking about all of those scientists who are rushing to get information out to the public after each of these extreme weather events. There seems to be an optimism at the core of that effort, a belief that, with a little more information, with a little more knowledge, that policymakers and the public will care more about this issue — will push people to do something. But I guess I’m wondering, is that true? Is this really a problem of lack of information?

henry fountain

Well, a couple of things. Scientists are scientists, right? They’re like men and women who believe in empirical thought and experimentation and getting data and analyzing it, and figuring out what’s going on and explaining it. If they’re optimistic, they think they’re going to do what they can do, which is explain the world — the way it is, the physical world, the warming world — to people.

And then there are some scientists who then take that and use it to go out and directly influence the policy makers, like they go lobby Congress or whatever. But there’s a lot who just think, I’m going to do my job, and then it’s up to the public and the public’s elected officials to do their job and deal with it. And, you know, I think you’ve seen some of that. Scientists have gotten better about explaining what’s going on more quickly. And this whole attribution study by this group — I mean, that’s their goal.

But what’s really going to change people’s minds is the more they’re personally affected by things like heat waves or floods or droughts, particularly if they keep happening or if, God forbid, they lose a loved one to a flood or to a heat wave.

astead herndon

I guess the “glass half full” read is that, as these things like heat waves become more tangible in people’s lives, then something will be done. But that same view also means that a lot of bad things are going to happen to people before they really come to know the bad effects of climate change. And we know that the people who are most likely to experience those negative effects are the people who are most vulnerable in our communities — the people who are most unheard, the people who have the least amount of political power to do something about it.

henry fountain

You know, sadly, I think that’s really true.

[music]

The poorest and most disadvantaged people in society tend to suffer the most from all kinds of climate-related disasters, and heat waves are really no exception. And what we’ve learned is that as the world continues to warm, heat waves are going to continue to increase in frequency and get hotter, and we may even see more events like this one in the Pacific Northwest with really off-the-charts, extreme heat. And that doesn’t bode well for all of society, but it’s especially bad news for the poorest and disadvantaged among us.

astead herndon

Thank you, Henry, for your time.

henry fountain

Well, thanks. Nice talking to you.

[music]
michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today.

archived recording (joe biden)

So hear me clearly. There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections. An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are — who we are as Americans.

michael barbaro

In a speech delivered on Tuesday in Philadelphia, President Biden issued his most forceful denunciation to date of Republican efforts to restrict voting in states across the country and to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his victory.

archived recording (joe biden)

Bullies and merchants of fear, peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.

michael barbaro

The speech was designed to reassure Democrats, who say Biden has failed to deliver on a promise to make voting rights a central theme of his presidency. And it comes as Republican lawmakers in Texas try to adopt voting restrictions over the objections of their Democratic colleagues, many of whom have fled the state to block the legislation.

archived recording (joe biden)

I’ll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up for God’s sake and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote. [APPLAUSE] Have you no shame?

michael barbaro

Today’s episode was produced by Annie Brown, Jessica Cheung, Rachelle Bonja, Asthaa Chaturvedi and Austin Mitchell. It was edited by Liz O. Baylen and Paige Cowett, contains original music by Dan Powell and was engineered by Chris Wood. Special thanks to Shawn Hubler.

[music]

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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