The Pacific Northwest Heat Wave and Climate Change's 'New Normal'

Dan Rohlf

July 6, 2021

While most people around the country were enjoying summer, residents of the Pacific Northwest used to joke about "Junuary" — the cloudy and often rainy June days before the sun made its relatively brief appearance in the region after the Fourth of July. But as I wrote this post last week in Portland, Oregon — a city set in a temperate rainforest ecosystem of towering trees and ferns — it was 116 degrees outside, the third consecutive day over 100 degrees and the second in excess of 110. The only time I've personally experienced a comparable temperature was nearly two decades ago when I visited Death Valley National Park with my family. Now Death Valley had come to me.

Life changes at these temperatures in the Northwest. Much of our infrastructure was not designed to withstand such extreme conditions. Portland's light rail system ceases to function, of course forcing more people into cars belching greenhouse gasses. Many restaurants and other businesses have closed; they're simply not equipped to handle the heat. Our house, like most constructed more than a couple of decades ago, lacks air conditioning altogether — there was no need for it due to the normal temperatures the region experienced in the 1990s and before.

Region-wide, our heat wave arrived in the midst of an ongoing historic drought, which has pushed many ecosystems, as well as human systems, to the breaking point. The Bureau of Reclamation has shut down water deliveries to irrigators in the Klamath River Basin in southern Oregon and northern California, disrupting many families' livelihoods. The lack of water has also triggered political and potentially even physical strife; some of the same extremists who were involved in the 2016 takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon have visited the Klamath area and threatened violence.

Endangered suckers and salmon in the Klamath face historic low-water conditions, potentially threatening a reprise of the 2002 drought year when 60,000 adult salmon died of diseases that thrive in hot water. Since the beginning of May, 97 percent of juvenile salmon captured by Yurok tribal biologists have either been infected with a disease almost certain to kill them within days — or they were already dead. Elsewhere, Snake River water temperatures in central Washington will almost certainly be lethal for salmon by August, replaying the 2015 migration season when 99 percent of endangered Snake River sockeye perished in the hot water before reaching their spawning grounds.

Not all the news from the Northwest is so dire. Unlike the Texas grid's failure in the face of weather extremes, our region's electrical distribution system largely held up to the heat wave's challenges, thanks to regulations that are anathema in some parts of the country. Also unlike some areas of the political map, most Northwest lawmakers see climate change as real and support laws to reduce our carbon emissions. Portland voters approved a climate justice tax measure designed and placed on the ballot by communities of color that is starting to provide tens of millions of dollars per year to promote renewable energy and climate adaptation in those communities — the first of its kind in the country. And in the past few years, the Northwest has closed coal-fired power plants and added significant electricity generation from renewables.

But even in the decidedly liberal Northwest, changing our ways to reduce our carbon footprint has proven difficult. Voters in Washington and Republican lawmakers in Oregon have prevented more far-reaching climate measures from becoming law. We're also facing a 21st century conundrum: large hydroelectric dams produce a significant amount of the region's electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions, but they block or threaten our iconic salmon runs that the region's indigenous people have depended on for millennia.

For me, the real disconnect between wishful thinking and reality comes when weather forecasters talk about when temperatures and our famously rainy weather will return to "normal." The sobering answer is never. Our heat wave and drought should not surprise anyone; current trends are more or less what scientists have predicted, and the disruptions and economic losses over the past week and a half underline the costs of our past inaction. We'll have to both adapt to a new normal and take steps along with all other citizens of the planet to prevent the swing away from historic conditions from being even more disruptive and costly.

For me, and I suspect many of my fellow Northwesterners, a new symbol of our climate-compromised future is a rainforest fern scorching in 116-degree heat.

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