Some stores in the Pacific Northwest are selling out of portable air conditioners and fans as residents accustomed to mild summers brace for a heatwave that could bring triple-digit temperatures to major cities.
Seattle and Portland are poised for temperatures nearing or surpassing 100 degrees, and cities across the region are also expected to feel the burn of this sizzling heat, AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski wrote.
The Dalles, Oregon, which has a population of approximately 16,000, could approach its all-time record of 112 degrees on Sunday and Spokane, Washington, could also make history with its slated slew of 100-degree temperatures.
“A dangerous heatwave is impacting the Pacific Northwest and into southern California,” the National Weather Service tweeted. “More than one hundred record high temperatures are forecast this weekend through Thursday.”
Such record-breaking heat isn’t just unusual, it can be dangerous.
Limited access to air conditioning raises health concerns
Many Pacific Northwesterners don’t have consistent access to air conditioning: less than two-thirds of households in Oregon have air conditioning, according to Kaiser Permanente Northwest.
According to 2019 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Seattle has the lowest rate of air-conditioned homes of any major American city. Only 44% of the homes in the metro area have air conditioning. In the Portland metro area, that figure was 79%.
That only complicates efforts to keep cool, and scorching temperatures can make people physically sick.
High temperatures can induce “serious health-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and heatstroke,” according to the healthcare company Kaiser Permanente.
Heat exhaustion, a condition which “occurs when you can’t sweat enough to cool your body,” turns the skin pale, cool and moist and can be indicated by symptoms such as “fatigue, weakness, headache, dizziness and nausea,” according to Kaiser Permanente. Moderate to severe cases of heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, which can be deadly.
Extreme heat can also place a strain on electrical infrastructure, potentially compromising the region’s already unusually low access to the cooling relief of air conditioning.
“With sweltering weather comes a higher demand for electricity to power air conditioning and fans,” the Statesman Journal reported.
A spike in temperatures also leads to concerns about air quality and wildfires.
Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington who studies global warming and its effects on public health, said warm air sucks moisture out of the soil and vegetation more efficiently than cooler air and that makes everything more prone to fire.
Oregon in particular was devastated by an unusually intense wildfire season last fall that torched about 1 million acres, burned more than 4,000 homes and killed nine people. Several fires are already burning around the Pacific Northwest, and much of the region is already in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
How to stay cool amid Pacific Northwest heat
There are numerous measures individuals can take to stay cool and reduce the health impacts of a heatwave.
For people who don’t have access to air conditioning, there are a few alternatives to help cool down the home, according to the National Weather Service Seattle.
Opening house windows at night, keeping window blinds closed, using the air currents from fans, cooking outdoors and sleeping at a low elevation can mitigate the severity of the heat.
Local communities’ public facilities can also serve as an oasis when temperatures begin to soar. Places like libraries, community centers and churches transform themselves into cooling stations by opening their air-conditioned doors to members of the public The city of Salem, Oregon, has a number of these cooling stations established for this weekend, according to the Statesman Journal.
In cases where someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, there are a few self-administered interventions that can be taken to alleviate symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic.
Finding a cool place to rest, staying hydrated with water or sports drinks, soaking the body in cool water and removing heavy layers of clothing can all help ease the physical discomfort of heat exhaustion. However, medical attention should be sought if exhaustion persists for more than an hour.
How long will the heat last?
Pacific Northwesterners can expect this heatwave to extend into the middle of next week, with the National Weather Service tweeting that record high temperatures are forecast to run through Thursday. However, the sweltering heat may become increasingly normal in coming years.
Ebi said this extended “heat dome” is a taste of the future for the Pacific Northwest as climate change reshapes weather patterns worldwide.
“We know from evidence around the world that climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves,” Ebi said. “We’re going to have to get used to this going forward. Temperatures are going up, and extreme temperatures are going up even faster.
“I tell my students when they get to be as old as I am, they’re going to look back and think about how nice the summers used to be.”
Contributing: The Associated Press