3 things to know about the record-smashing heat wave baking the Pacific Northwest

By | June 29, 2021

Like a lid on a steaming pot, a high-pressure system is sitting over the U.S. Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada, sending temperatures in the region soaring to unprecedented heights.

From a historic perspective, the event is so rare and extreme as to be a once in a millennium heat wave. But one consequence of Earth’s rapidly changing climate is that such extreme events will become much more common in the region in future, says Larry O’Neill, a climate scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Temperatures in Portland, Ore., reached 115° Fahrenheit (46° Celsius) on June 29, the highest temperature recorded there since record-keeping began in 1940; average high temperatures for this time of year are about 73° F (23° C). Similar records were notched across the region and more are expected to be set as the high pressure system slowly slides east.

The heat was so extreme it melted transit power cables for Portland’s cable cars and caused asphalt and concrete roads in western Washington to expand and crack. Such high temperatures are particularly dangerous in a normally cool region little used to or prepared for it, raising the risk of heat-related deaths and other health hazards (SN: 4/3/18). Ground-level ozone levels, for instance, also reached the highest seen yet in 2021, the chemical reactions that form the gas amped up by a potent mix of high heat and strong ultraviolet light.

O’Neill talked to Science News about three things to know about the heat wave.

1. The heat wave is linked to a stalled kink in the jet stream.

Jet streams, fast-moving currents of air high in the troposphere, encircle both poles, helping to push weather systems around Earth’s surface.  The current isn’t smooth and straight; it can meander and form large swirls, peaks and troughs surrounding zones of high- and low-pressure.

Occasionally, these weather patterns stall, becoming stationary “blocking events” that keep a particular spate of weather in place for an extended period of time. One such stalled-out high-pressure zone — basically a large dome of hot, dry weather — is now sitting atop the Pacific Northwest.

London-based meteorologist Scott Duncan tweets about the unusual heat (top) and the jet stream pattern (bottom) that created that heat dome over the Pacific Northwest. In the jet stream image, hot, dry air (in orange) swirls around and maintains a high-pressure system over the region from June 24 to June 29, locking that hot, dry air in place.

Historically, similar high-pressure patterns have brought heat waves to the region, O’Neill says. But this one is different. A typical severe heat wave in the past might lead to temperatures of about 100 °F, he says, “not 115 °F.”

2. Climate change is making the heat wave more severe.

Baseline temperatures were already higher than in the past, due to Earth’s changing climate. Globally, Earth’s average temperatures are increasing, with 2016 and 2020 tied for the hottest years on record (SN: 1/14/21).

Those changes are reflected in what’s now officially considered “normal.” In May, for example, the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the country’s new baseline reference temperature, or “climate normal,” will be the period from 1991 to 2020 — also now the hottest 30-year period on record for the country (SN: 5/26/21).

That changing reference makes it tough to place such an unprecedented heat wave in any kind of historical context. “We have a historical data record that’s 100 years long,” O’Neill says. Saying that the heat wave is a once-in-a-millennium event means that “you would expect that, at random chance, this would occur once every 1,000 years. But we’ve never observed this. We have no basis to say this,” he adds. “This is a climate that we’re not accustomed to.”

3. Climate change is likely to make such extreme events more common in the future.

A week before the onset of the heat wave, forecasters were predicting such unprecedented temperatures for the region that many people dismissed those predictions as “being ridiculous,” O’Neill says. “Turns out, [the forecasters] were right.”

Future climate change attribution studies may shed some more light on the ways in which this particular heat wave may be linked to climate change (SN: 7/15/20). Overall, it’s known that climate change is likely to make such extreme events more common in the future, O’Neill says. “We’re seeing these highs form more frequently, and more persistently.” Extreme heat and extreme drought in the U.S. West, for example, can create a reinforcing cycle that exacerbates both (SN: 4/16/20).  

And that poses many dangers for the planet, not least for human health (SN: 4/3/18). In May, scientists reported in Nature Climate Change that 37 percent of heat-related deaths between 1991 and 2018 were attributable to human-caused climate change.  

“When we talk about climate change, often the conversation is a little more abstract,” O’Neill says. “We’re experiencing it right now (SN: 11/25/19). And this question about whether we adapt and mitigate — that’s something we have to figure out right now.”