It was 110 degrees Fahrenheit. My skin began to sweat the moment I stepped outside. I turned my head away as a breeze blew hot air onto my face. I felt like Sarah Connor in the playground when Judgment Day comes.
I reluctantly walked over to the side of the house, knowing exactly what I was about to see: A broken air conditioner. It decided now was the perfect time to quit — right as we were reaching the hottest days of the heatwave. Weather forecasters were predicting at least two more days of 100+ temperatures, and a repairman wouldn’t be able to visit us for another three days.
Three days didn’t sound that bad at first. Oh, how little I knew about the heat.
Under-prepared and overbaked
A “heat dome” is pretty much what it sounds like: It’s a “dome” of air pressure that traps high temperatures beneath it, causing heat waves on the surface below. This pushes temperatures up and over 100 degrees, which is exactly what the Pacific Northwest saw early this month. Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia, Canada, reached record-breaking highs that ranged from 108 to 121 degrees.
Portland’s streetcar service was cancelled due to damage from the heat. A highway in Eastern Washington buckled beneath the blazing sun. Grocers covered perishable items in sheets of plastic to maintain cooler temperatures. Farmers had to shorten their work hours as their crops withered and dried in the sun. My little garden didn’t do much better; half the lettuce had dry, crumbling tips, and any seedlings that sprouted in this heat promptly shriveled up.
It was pretty wild. The folks of the Pacific Northwest were very unprepared for heat like this, with some older buildings lacking air conditioners completely. Hospitals filled up with patients suffering from heat-related illnesses and struggled with equipment breaking down due to the high temperatures. Dr. Jeremy Hess, director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at the University of Washington, told The Guardian that hospitals were very close to becoming overwhelmed.
I was no exception to being caught unprepared. (You just don’t expect this kind of weather in the land of evergreens, you know?) The only advantage I had was the experience of growing up in the muggy heat of the South and the summertime visits to Korea in my youth. The moment the air conditioner went out, I was freezing water bottles and pulling out whatever fans I could find. I resisted turning on the stove and oven to cook. The temperature inside the house gradually reached 95 degrees. I waited patiently for nighttime. When the sun finally set, and the temperature dropped to the 70s, each window and door was flung open as if every bug in the world was welcome to invade my home.
And invade they did, but I didn’t care. The cool night air was now a precious commodity, and not even the moths and spiders could ruin it for me. (The mosquitoes were definitely bad, though.)
Welcome to another edition of heat dome
The U.S. is no stranger to heat domes. In 2020, a heat dome placed residents all over the country — except the Pacific Northwest, an area the heatwave managed to completely miss — at risk of heat-related illnesses during the pandemic. The same thing happened in 2019, 2018, and 2017.
The increasingly regular, and intense, heat waves appear to be something that we’ll have to get used to. Yet another piece of the “new normal” that includes yearly wildfire and coronavirus seasons. But what is causing these exceptional heat waves? Experts have pointed to climate change as the culprit.
“Summers in the Pacific Northwest are about three degrees warmer today than 50 or 100 years ago,” explained Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist with the Breakthrough Institute, to The Washington Post. Not only does that mean our hot seasons are even hotter, it means extreme heat waves will become more frequent. “Heat waves that used to occur as 1-in-1,000-year events are becoming 1-in-100-year events and 1-in-100-year events are becoming 1-in-20.”
Washington state climatologist Nick Bond told The Guardian that this heatwave was like a warning shot from nature. “There’s no question the climate is warming and this shows what can happen,” he said. “We didn’t like it, so let’s do something about it.”
The dangers of the dome
We certainly need to do something about it, especially if this becomes a regular occurrence. The heat was absolutely no joke. The sweating would start from the moment I woke up. My feet puffed up from the hot temperatures by the end of the day. The refrigerator nearly burned the floor as it used all its energy to keep the food cold. I carried an ice pack and a frozen bottle of water with me around the house. There was sweat from every joint of my body, including behind the knees. I took three cold showers a day just to maintain my body temperature. I had no energy to do anything, not even play games or cook. Sitting in a chair to focus on writing was nigh impossible when all my brain could think of was the heat, the heat, the heat.
The day stretched so long. Time slows down when all you can think about is staying cool. Three days without an AC felt like an entire week.
But I got off very lucky. Other people in my state lost electricity from rolling blackouts. I would’ve been screwed if that happened to me. Even worse were the lives lost during the whole ordeal — Oregon officials reported over 90 heat-related deaths, Washington state estimates about 30 people died from the heat, and Canada is looking at almost 500 deaths from the heat wave along with the deaths of millions of sea life. To top it all off, Canada is also fighting over 180 wildfires that have sparked from the combination of hot, dry conditions and lightning. I don’t doubt that the wildfire smoke will eventually make its way here, like it has in years past.
The summer season continues.
It’s still over 90 degrees outside. But now I’ve got the AC turned on, keeping the heat away from me. I have plenty of drinking water, just in case. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to pass through the season without further repairs needed, but who knows. Not expecting the effects of climate change to hit us is what got the Pacific Northwest in trouble in the first place.
“People have recognized that this might happen in theory, but I don’t think they expected it to happen,” Dr. Hess said to The Guardian.
“They certainly didn’t expect it to happen now, and they didn’t expect it to be this bad.”