A record-breaking heatwave that descended on the Pacific Northwest over the weekend reached its peak Monday. Temperatures in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle soared to 116 and 106, respectively, topping previous all-time highs — some of which have been set just in the last week.
Those are suffocating numbers for a region where many residents don’t have air conditioning: In Seattle, less than 50% of homes lack systems. And while a recent national survey shows close to 80 percent of Portland homes have AC, about half of them are window units, which provided considerably less relief than a central air system.
“It’s like a sauna in our apartment — it’s so hot you can’t even wear clothes,” said Lilly Pelish, 28, who lives in southwest Portland. She said the temperature in her apartment was 110 degrees when she woke up Monday morning.
After spending most of Sunday sitting in the shower drenching herself with cold water every 30 minutes, Pelish knew “I was not going to let our pets stay in the apartment all day again.” So she and her wife, Sage, headed for a cooling center set up at the Oregon Convention Center. They brought their Husky-Pit Bull mix Shyla with them, and a “very grumpy” cat named Bagherra.
In Seattle, a weather blog warned that by Monday afternoon in the Emerald City, temperatures would “warm beyond the experience of any living inhabitant of the region.”
“People will start to see relief tomorrow (Tuesday),” said Tyler Kranz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, where weather models are predicting a high of the mid-to high 90s. “It’s not a whole lot – this time of year we’re typically in the upper 70s, and we’re clearly quite a bit above that, but it’s much better than 115.”
On Sunday, Portland hit 112 degrees, beating a previous all-time high of 108, set the day before. Prior to the current heatwave, Portland had a recorded high of 107, which it hit previously three times, once in 1965 and twice in 1981.
Are heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest the new normal?
While climate change has contributed to extreme temperatures year-round across the country, Kranz said that because he’s not a climate scientist, he’s not prepared to make a prediction whether this type of heat is the “new normal” for the Pacific Northwest.
“We stick to the day-to-day weather, but what I can say is our new climate normals came out recently and now that we’re incorporating the last decade of data, it does show that temperatures on average are increasing,” Kranz said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if that trend continues. But I can’t tell you if next summer it’s going to hit 115 again; we just don’t know that.”
He also can’t say whether the city will hit triple digits again this summer. Right now, the forecast is predicting that there’s a 60-70% chance temperatures will be above normal in July, but that could mean they stay in the 90s. Kranz said the average for July in the Portland area is usually “lower 80s.”
‘Going to have to get used to this’:Pacific Northwest scorched in dangerous, record-breaking heatwave
“There could be another heatwave,” he said. “Right now, that’s too far out for our model guidance (to predict).”
But Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington who studies global warming and its effects on public health, thinks otherwise.
“We know from evidence around the world that climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves,” she said. “We’re going to have to get used to this going forward.”
‘I’m not sure how hot it is in my apartment’
In Portland on Monday, all light rail and streetcar service was suspended across the city until Tuesday morning, when temperatures were expected to drop below 100 (bus service was still available).
M.J. Jackson, 29, stayed cool Saturday and Sunday by visiting the Sandy and Columbia rivers, trying hard to avoid her air condition-free apartment in Northwest Portland. But by Monday afternoon, when temperatures hit 104 degrees, she packed up her computer and headed for the Convention Center.
“I don’t have a thermostat, so I’m not sure how hot it is in my apartment,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure I want to know, either.”
Jackson’s plan was to work at the Convention Center — where close to 300 people spent Saturday night according to Multnomah County officials, some with animals — until around 4 p.m. and then head to a movie theater for an air-conditioned, double feature of “A Quiet Place: Part II” and “Cruella.”
Northwest faces ‘dangerous heatwave’:Area where air conditioning usually isn’t needed
And as much as Jackson isn’t wild about the idea of spending money on a window AC unit and wants to conserve energy, she wonders if she needs to change her thinking.
“This is where the world is going, and it’s really sad,” she said. “I never would have considered air conditioning before. Maybe I need to.”
Most pools across Portland were also closed Monday, along with various school campuses – that meant there were no meal services at local elementary schools and fewer summer college classes. Many schools in the Portland area don’t have air conditioning. Some restaurants, most of which are still operating at 50% because of county COVID protocols, also closed temporarily.
The heat took a toll over the weekend
In Eugene, two hours south of Portland, the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials were suspended for several hours on Sunday; many finals were moved to after 8:30 p.m. local time, away from their original start time at 4 p.m. The track at Hayward Field was practically smoking Saturday morning — while temperatures in Eugene hit 111 degrees, the temperature of the actual track surface exceeded 150 degrees.
One competitor, heptathlete Taliyah Brooks, fainted in the middle of the day during the javelin competition and was rushed to a Eugene hospital; she later withdrew from the competition.
Late Sunday, more than 30,000 residents in Medford, Oregon, — just 27 miles north of the California border and where temperatures hit 113 degrees — lost power for a few hours, though it was restored early Monday.
Reyna Lopez, the executive director of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s largest farmworkers union, spent the weekend checking in on seasonal workers.
“We’re definitely very worried,” Lopez said. “We know people are going to continue to work through the heat, because we have a very delicate timeline for the harvest… one woman we’ve been in contact with told us, ‘There’s no shade out here, just blueberry bushes for miles.'”
The union represents more than 7,000 farmworkers in Oregon, most of them based in the mid-Willamette Valley. Lopez knows the forecast is supposed to be about 20 degrees cooler the rest of the week, but still worries about people in the fields in the coming months.
“Right now there’s a real lack of leadership on both the federal and state level,” Lopez said. “We need to talk about systemic changes we can make. We need strong rules, based on science and personal testimonies.
“Right now we have no protections in place for workers, and we need them — not just for when it’s 115 degrees, but starting at 90 degrees.”