Authorities in the western United States and Canada are warning residents to take precautions as an historic heatwave hit the region on Saturday, sending temperatures soaring and pushing local officials to open emergency cooling centres.
All of the US states of Washington and Oregon and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and California were under an excessive heat warning as temperatures were to rise dramatically during the weekend and through next week, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
“This event will likely be one of the most extreme and prolonged heatwaves in the recorded history of the inland Northwest,” the NWS said.
Across the region, dozens of daily record-high temperatures are expected to be set, with monthly and even all-time records in jeopardy of falling, the service said.
Some of the affected areas are generally accustomed to milder weather – and many residents do not have air conditioning, which has raised concerns about the safety of elderly, unhoused and other people who are particularly vulnerable in extreme heat.
The hot weather had berry farmers scrambling to pick crops before they rot on the vine and fisheries managers working to keep endangered sockeye salmon safe from too-warm river water.
Stores sold out of portable air conditioners and fans, some hospitals cancelled outdoor vaccination clinics, cities opened cooling centres, baseball teams cancelled or moved up weekend games, and utilities braced for possible power outages.
Officials in Multnomah County, Oregon were asking for volunteers to help staff cooling centres, while Portland General Electric announced it had about 120 crews working over the weekend to respond to any outages, though the utility said it did not anticipate service interruptions.
In Seattle, Washington, resident James Bryant picked up an air conditioner in anticipation of the extreme heat. Most homes in the city do not have air conditioning. “My house is already hot, and so with the added heat over the next few days – I’ve got kids, I got to make sure they don’t get too hot as well,” Bryant said.
North of the border, the Canadian government also issued a heat warning for parts of the western provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as Yukon and the Northwest Territories.
“I like to break a record, but this is like shattering and pulverising them,” Environment Canada’s senior climatologist David Phillips told local news outlet CTV News. “It’s warmer in parts of western Canada than in Dubai.”
The heatwave comes after official data showed that earlier this month, 88 percent of the western US was in a state of drought made worse by climate change. Lakes have been at historically low levels and restrictions were imposed on water use across the region.
WA is expecting record heat over the next week. We are increasing capacity for many cooling centers by removing restrictions on number of people who can be inside these locations. This is one way to temporarily address the health effects of the heat wave.https://t.co/R2L9sKpKPv
— Governor Jay Inslee (@GovInslee) June 25, 2021
Experts told Al Jazeera that the climate change-fuelled drought is drying reservoirs and contributing to an early wildfire season, as well.
“The southwestern US is in a protracted drought period, or megadrought, of the likes we haven’t seen in the observational record in the last millennia,” said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor at the University of California researching climate and weather.
Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington who studies global warming and its effects on public health, said the extended “heat dome” was 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 heatwaves. We’re going to have to get used to this going forward,” she told the Associated Press news agency.