Extreme heat is suspected in at least four deaths in Oregon as the Pacific Northwest continues to bake Friday in a prolonged heat wave that topped triple digits in many parts of the region.
The Multnomah County medical examiner is investigating whether heat played a role in three deaths in Portland, according to a agency press release. A fourth possible heat-related death has been reported in Umatilla County on the east side of the state, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Portland reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, setting a new daily record for July 26. Seattle broke its daily record on the same day, rising to 94 degrees. Parts of the Interior Northwest, which are more accustomed to scorching temperatures, have approached 110 degrees at times this week.
The heat wave, which forecasters say will continue through the weekend, served as a reminder of the risks posed by extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest, where people west of the Cascade Mountains are ill-adapted to extreme heat and natural systems are vulnerable to soaring temperatures.
Although damaging, heat wave impacts remained less significant through Friday compared to last year’s heat dome, which stunned the Pacific Northwest as temperatures in some places soared by five degrees or more beyond historic highs. Seattle temperatures peaked at 108 degrees and Portland’s at 116. Hundreds of people died.
Temperatures this year were not expected to reach such dangerous levels, and local governments had spent the colder months preparing for the impacts – with some evidence that new planning, while incomplete, bore fruit.
The June 2021 heat wave was “virtually impossible“, according to some experts, if not for the impacts of climate change. Burning temperatures crumbled streets in Seattle, makes baby birds leap to their deaths across the regionkilled millions of sea creatures along the coastline and cost Washington state about a fifth of its cherry harvest.
This year’s cool spring weather, which helped build a solid snowpack on the mountains, dampened some of the recent heat, and officials said they were better prepared after the harsh lessons of the winter. ‘last year.
“In my experience, the heart dome — we saw it coming, but we didn’t have enough coordination to really get ahead of it,” said Rad Cunningham, senior epidemiologist with the state Department of Health. Washington, 2021 heat wave. “We have done our job to improve our systems.
The 2021 heat wave served as a wake-up call for the North West, where many households lack air conditioning. Many cities, including Seattle, did not have specific action plans for heat waves.
The city has since generated a draft report of recommendations following the 2021 heat wave and is working to finalize a new heat action plan, according to Lucia Schmit, emergency planning coordinator at the City of Seattle.
Schmit said the recommendations are already in action. City workers delivered air conditioning units to senior centers that ran out of cooling last week. The regional homeless authority has set up a cooling system in the homeless encampments. Heat response coordination began several days earlier than last year, Schmit said.
King County, which includes Seattle and its suburbs, is develop a heat mitigation strategy too. Portland launched a program to supply heat pump cooling appliances for low-income residents.
This year, state and local public health agencies released a flurry of heat messages days before temperatures spiked.
“You could see on our social media this year, we were putting out heat messages long before this event,” Cunningham said. “We were trying to catch up during the heat dome last year.”
Last summer, 157 deaths from heat-related illnesses were reported in Washington State; most were recorded during the three-day heat wave in June. Almost 100 deaths were reported in Oregon during the heatwave. The true toll is likely higher, as heat often exacerbates issues such as heart or kidney problems, but is not directly implicated in official death data.
The 2021 heat dome had disastrous environmental effects. The shellfish were exposed by low tides that came during the hottest hours of the day, leaving the creatures to bake on the ground to death. Some fish kills have been reported in overheated streams. The intense temperatures scorched the cherries by the sun, forcing some growers to abandon their cultivation altogether.
This year’s heat wave was initiated for less severe impacts.
Coastal temperatures remained more modest and the timing of the tides offered better protection for shells during the heat of the day. Above average snowpack and a cool spring meant the Columbia River flowed with cool temperatures favored by salmon, trout and other species.
“It’s one degree cooler than the five-year average for this time of year,” said Ben Anderson, spokesman for the Washington Fish and Wildlife Agency. “Flows look pretty good.”
Many cherry crops have already been picked and the heat wave nearly disrupted the season, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. Growers have become accustomed to shifting picking times earlier in the day if needed, DeVaney said.
Last year, Gowers rushed to buy headlamps and lighting so workers could pick orchards at night, when fruit is less likely to be damaged and workers run less risks. It is an investment that could pay off in the future.
“Last year, they had to invest in all the lighting infrastructure and work on the details to be able to do this,” said Lee Kalcsits, associate professor of fruit tree physiology at Washington State University. “Everyone moved into the night probably faster than they would have if the heat dome hadn’t happened.”
Meanwhile, in apple orchards, a growing number of growers are investing in shade cloths, which filter between 10 and 30 percent of sunlight onto their crops, Kalcsits added. This helps them conserve water and prevent their fruits from getting sunburned when temperatures rise.
Healthcare workers remained wary of the weekend, with forecasts calling for extreme temperatures through Sunday in the interior northwest.
In Washington State, 242 ER visits for heat-related illnesses were reported to the state Department of Health Monday through Friday morning.
“During the heat dome, we had up to 200 in a single day,” Cunningham said. But “we’re not done with this one yet.”
The effects of heat can build up over time, especially if people can’t cool their bodies enough at night, said Dr. Antonio Germann, a physician at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.
Germann said about 50% of his patients are migrant farm workers, some of whom work outdoors during the day and live in accommodations that lack air conditioning.
“The longer duration of these heat waves makes them more complex and risky for them,” Germann said.
When Germann came to his clinic in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, about ten years ago, he didn’t give much thought to the effects of heat. He now sees his imprint on many patients.
“Asthma, heart disease, kidney disease and things of that nature are linked, and these are the consequences of a changing climate,” Germann said.
Even with better planning, the heat will remain a potent threat in the Northwest.
In Seattle, “the city’s housing stock was built to retain heat,” Schmit said, adding that less than half of residents had air conditioning. Retrofitting aging community centers and other city buildings to provide air conditioning could take years, if not decades.
“We don’t have a lot of interior options. Creating those options is going to be a long and intensive process,” Schmit said, adding that historically Seattle has relied on nighttime cooling to give people’s bodies a break. “We will see an increase in nighttime heat waves in the city. This is our reality for the future. Last year was a once-in-a-lifetime event and a fluke in many ways, but not in most of the ways that matter.
CORRECTION (July 30, 2022, 12:56 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misrepresented orchards in which workers use shade cloths. They are used in apple orchards, not cherry orchards.