Scientists warn of climate change intensifying heat waves
Scientists are warning that climate change is already compounding the extreme heat battering the Pacific Northwest and will do so even more as the planet continues to warm.
Oregon and Washington saw record-setting triple-digit temperatures this week, bringing many aspects of daily life to a grinding halt.
Weather experts said that while there are many factors at play in this most recent heat wave, climate change is adding a few extra degrees to an already bad situation.
“This is a highly unusual weather event that we’re dealing with … that’s what we’re having in this case, in which all the factors that tend to make it hot in the Pacific Northwest are all working together,” said Nick Bond, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Washington.
But he added that climate change, which he said had raised temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the region, “certainly has a role here in that our summer temperatures have risen, and they’re going to continue to rise.”
“It’s that much more severe of an event because of that baseline warming,” he told The Hill.
National Weather Service meteorologist Robin Fox told The Hill she’d refrain from attributing any singular weather event to climate change and instead described the Pacific Northwest heat wave as being caused by a “large area of high pressure” that’s bringing “historic heat” to the region.
Some experts said that as the Earth heats up, climate change could have a more dramatic impact on summer heat, posing risks to humans in different ways.
“All the indicators are very clearly that we are entering continually hotter, dryer, riskier summers,” Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist and executive director of the Rowan Institute, told The Hill.
“From a climate change context, the idea that heat extremes are going to become more extreme and more intense” has been known to scientists for decades, she added.
Jane Baldwin, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, added that climate change will affect not only temperatures across the board but also the nature of atypically hot periods.
“We have very clear evidence that as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase, the overall temperature warms, but also because of that, heat waves increase in intensity and duration,” Baldwin said.
“Until the event has passed, it’s hard to do the attribution of the event in terms of how much of this event can be attributed to climate change, but I do think it is a harbinger of what is projected to come with global warming,” she added.
The Biden administration has highlighted climate change as among the major crises the U.S. is facing and has said it wants to cut emissions at least in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.
Congress will soon determine which of President Biden’s climate measures to include in their infrastructure packages, and federal agencies are expected to take regulatory actions to cut emissions.
Kristie Ebi, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington, said the heat wave in the Northwest was unusual but also in line with the trajectory of climate change.
“What we’re seeing today is more extreme, but it certainly is part of what’s expected with the changing climate,” she said.
Seattle has seen record-shattering triple-digit temperatures in recent days, and inland areas such as Spokane, Wash., could see several more days of extreme heat, according to the National Weather Service.
The heat wave comes less than a year after September 2020 registered as the hottest September on record globally. Six of the warmest years on record occurred in the 2010s.
Experts also raised concerns about the human impacts, particularly to those in disadvantaged communities or who are otherwise vulnerable.
“Think about all the vulnerable people: pregnant women, babies, the elderly … anyone who is at risk in society is also going to have compounding impacts from a heat event like this,” Myhre said. “Just like COVID, this is an example of how inequity is exacerbated when disaster happens.”
“This is just the beginning of the heat waves we will see,” Myhre added, warning of “really catastrophic heat-induced events in places that have no infrastructure to protect people.”
“One of the reasons why we are able to navigate the heat waves this year is we currently don’t have any smoke and we’re able to ventilate our houses,” she noted. However, she said, “if we get to a point where we have smoke,” the effects of the heat will be even more acutely felt.
These extreme temperatures are also likely to lead to a wave of health problems for which local health infrastructure may be unprepared, Ebi said.
“Our core body temperature actually only operates within a … narrow range,” she said. “When [the body’s] mechanisms are insufficient, because of chronic disease, for example, and our core body temperature starts to rise, it starts to affect our organ systems.”
As a result, she said, when experts speak of the health risks of temperature spikes, “it’s not just the heat stress, the heat stroke we’re worried about, it’s people who have underlying chronic medical conditions, children and babies, those over the age of 65, people who take drugs that limit the ability of the body to sweat.”