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2021 Western North America heat wave

2021 Western North America heat wave
Air temperature anomalies across North America on June 27, 2021
DateLate June 2021 (2021-06) – present
Location
TypeHeat wave
Deaths

The 2021 Western North America heat wave is a heat wave that is currently affecting much of the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, particularly, in western Nevada, Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho in the United States, as well as British Columbia, and in the later phase, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada.[2] It also affected inland areas of central and southern California,[3] as well as northwestern and southern Nevada, though the temperature anomalies were not as extreme as regions farther north.

The heat wave appeared due to an exceptionally strong ridge centered over the area. It caused some of the highest temperatures ever recorded in the region,[4] including the highest temperature ever measured in Canada at 49.6 °C (121.3 °F).

The exact death toll is still unknown but is growing. On 30 June 2021, the chief coroner of British Columbia said 321 more sudden deaths than usual were reported in the province, suggesting the majority or all of them could have died as a result of the heat, not counting the so far unreported deaths in the databases.[5][6] Human losses in the United States include at least 63 in Oregon (of which 45 in Multnomah County, home to Portland);[6][7][8] Washington has also seen some people die of hyperthermia.[9]

Meteorological background

Geopotential height chart at 500mb at 11:00 UTC on June 28, 2021. The center of the heat dome, which caused the heat wave, can be seen over the British Columbia Interior

The Pacific Northwest lies close to the North Pacific High, a semi-permanent anticyclone which is most active in summer. In addition to that, 2021 is a year of La Niña, a phenomenon during which warmer waters stay on the western part of the Pacific Ocean.[10]

On June 23, the National Weather Service warned of an approaching heat wave on the Pacific Northwest,[11] whose origins could be traced to torrential rains in China.[12] There, the warm, moist air rose and was eventually sucked up by the jet stream, which transported it east over cooler waters. When that air current encountered an upper-level high-pressure zone, also called a ridge, it started to significantly deform on 25 June,[13] forcing to accommodate the high-pressure area south of the jet stream's meander.[10] At the same time, the Southwestern states are enduring an intense drought,[14] which allowed higher-than-average temperatures over the Southwestern United States; that hot and dry air then moved north to the Pacific Northwest.[15]

These conditions made way for a massive Rex block, also called an omega block due to the specific shape of the jet stream that surrounds the area of high pressure, looking like the last letter of the Greek alphabet, Ω.[16] In this situation, a high-pressure area stays there for a long time and does not let cyclones pass through it, which could have cooled the region.[17] As the Pacific Northwest, just as the Southwest, experienced severe drought conditions, the air was heating more quickly than usual,[18] which intensified the ridge so strongly it caused a heat dome.[19] In this scenario, the high-pressure area forced the air downwards, heating the air column;[20] but even as the air became increasingly lighter and hotter due to the sun's energy, it could not escape the dome because of the high pressure,[21] a situation which has been compared to a pressure cooker.[22] Indeed, in Prince George, British Columbia, the geopotential height value at 500 hPa on 27 June was reported at 5986 m - the highest ever recorded in the area; adjacent stations have similarly reported record-high values.[23] The downslope winds from the Cascades and other mountain ranges further warmed the air in the valleys.[20][22][24][25]

Climate change in Canada and climate change in the United States are widely considered to be the major causes of the heat wave's unprecedented intensity,[26][27][28][29] although whether the frequency of these omega blocks is due to global heating is not yet known.[19] All of these events contributed to what has been described as a phenomenon that could statistically occur only once in several thousand years.[19][30]

Temperature records

Much of the Pacific Northwest, normally known for its temperate weather in June, received maximum temperatures 20-35 °F (11-19 °C) above normal during this heat wave.[31][32][33][34] In fact, the temperatures were so anomalous that nighttime lows were higher than the average high temperatures that this region would normally observe at this time of year.[31][35][36]

Canada

On June 29, the temperature in Lytton, British Columbia, hit 49.6 °C (121.3 °F), the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada.[37] This occurred after consecutively setting new record highs of 46.6 °C (115.9 °F) on June 27 and 47.9 °C (118.2 °F) on June 28.[38] It is also the highest temperature ever recorded not only north of 50°N,[39] but also north of 45°N, and is also the highest temperature in the U.S. or Canada recorded outside the Desert Southwest.[40]

On June 27, local records were set in areas such as Cultus Lake, Lillooet,[41] Ashcroft (43.8 °C (110.8 °F))[42] and Kamloops (44 °C (111 °F));[43] in all, there were 59 weather stations in B.C. that set records for hottest temperatures recorded for June 27.[44] These were largely beaten in the following days (Kamloops, for instance, has registered 45.8 °C (114.4 °F) on June 28 and 47.3 °C (117.1 °F) on June 29).[45][46] On June 28, records were set in Abbotsford at 42.9 °C (109.2 °F), Victoria at 39.8 °C (103.6 °F) and Port Alberni at 42.7 °C (108.9 °F).[47] As of June 29, 103 all-time heat records were set across Western Canada,[48] including east of the Rocky Mountains. In Alberta, Banff 37.2 °C (99.0 °F), Beaverlodge 40.5 °C (104.9 °F), Cochrane 34.5 °C (94.1 °F), Jasper 40.8 °C (105.4 °F),[38] Grande Prairie 41.1 °C (106.0 °F),[38] Hendrickson Creek 38.1 °C (100.6 °F),[38] Nordegg 36.9 °C (98.4 °F) and Red Earth Creek 39.6 °C (103.3 °F) have all seen the strongest heat ever measured in these communities.[49] Nahanni Butte, Northwest Territories, also set a regional record at 38.1 °C (100.6 °F).[38]

Sweltering conditions are also expected in the final days of June and early July as far east as Saskatchewan and western Manitoba.[50]

United States

Several major cities, including Seattle, Portland, and Spokane, experienced high temperatures far exceeding 100 °F (38 °C) and low temperatures higher than the area's normal daily high temperatures.

The hottest temperatures were recorded on the Oregon-Washington border. In The Dalles and Dallesport, on either side of the Columbia River, daytime high temperatures reached 118 °F (48 °C), tying an all-time high for the state of Washington[51] and beating the June statewide record by 5 degrees Fahrenheit.[52] The same heat was measured in Tri-Cities on June 28-29.[53][54]

Oregon

On June 26, Portland broke its previous all-time record high temperature of 107 °F (42 °C), set in July 1965 and August 1981, with a temperature of 108 °F (42 °C).[55] It topped that record again on June 27, with a temperature of 112 °F (44 °C).[56] The following day, the mercury rose further to 116 °F (47 °C).[33][57] All of these extremes also beat the previous record June temperature, which was 102 °F (39 °C) set on June 26, 2006.[32]

Salem, Oregon, reached 105 °F (41 °C) degrees on June 26, its record high temperature for June. It then hit 113 °F (45 °C) degrees on June 27, breaking the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in that city, which was previously 108 °F (42 °C). Salem then exceeded the previous day's record temperature on June 28, with a maximum temperature of 117 °F (47 °C).[58] However, not all the regions of the mid-Willamette Valley received extreme heat on June 28, especially regions south of South Salem where temperatures only reached the mid-90s Fahrenheit, likely due to the sea breeze in the area.[59]

The Willamette Valley has also seen extreme overnight temperature drops (twice the size of normal fluctuations) due to cooler air coming from the ocean – Portland cooled a record 52 °F (29 °C) during the night, while Salem almost approached its all-time largest temperature swing, from 117 °F (47 °C) to 61 °F (16 °C).[60]

Washington

Predicted high temperatures for Western Washington on June 28, 2021

Between 1894, when the records in Seattle began, and June 2021, temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C) were only noted three times;[61][62] however, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has recorded three consecutive days of temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C).[63] Notably, they rose to 104 °F (40 °C) on June 27, only to be beaten to 108 °F (42 °C) the following day.[64][65] All of these values have broken the previous June record (96 °F (36 °C), 2017) by a large margin.[32] The suburbs farther from the coast were even hotter – a local radio station in Maple Valley reported temperatures of 118 °F (48 °C).[66]

On June 26, Port Angeles, Washington, recorded an all-time record high of 95 °F (35 °C).[67] The Quillayute Airport weather station, also on the Olympic Peninsula, on the edge of the Hoh Rainforest and three miles from the Pacific Ocean in Washington, recorded 110 degrees, exceeding its prior record by 11 degrees.[35]

On Mount Rainier, normally freezing temperatures reached 73 °F (23 °C) degrees above 10,000 feet (3,000 m) on June 27.[68]

East of the Cascades, on June 27, Spokane and a few other cities measured record-breaking or -tying temperatures, with places such as Ephrata, Washington, measuring temperatures upwards of 109 °F (43 °C), and Spokane with a record high of 102 °F (39 °C) for that date.[69] On June 28, Lewiston, Idaho, and Omak, Washington, reported values of 108 °F (42 °C) and Ephrata registered 113 °F (45 °C), the new maxima ever measured at those places on that date.[70][71] Along with this, extremely high minimal temperatures were also noted: Ephrata's thermometers did not go lower than 78 °F (26 °C) on June 28[72] and 82 °F (28 °C) on June 29.[73] The same day, Ephrata, Spokane and Omak all reached their all-time records, at 115 °F (46 °C), 109 °F (43 °C) and 117 °F (47 °C), respectively. These are the hottest temperatures measured since records began for those areas.[74][75][76]

Impact

The heat wave is a problem for major cities in the Northwest. Seattle and Portland have respectively the first- and third-lowest percentage of air-conditioned households among certain major metro areas in the United States.[77] In 2015, a U.S. Census Bureau survey found that only 33% of Seattle homes have air conditioning (A/C) units, but that number increased to 44% in the 2019 survey, likely due to the warming trend in that area.[32] The rate of air-conditioned households is even lower in British Columbia despite marked increases over the years – BC Hydro estimated that only 34% of province's residents were using these cooling appliances, though in the interior parts of the province, the rate rose to 72%.[78] For these reasons, authorities have waived COVID-related restrictions for designated cooling shelters in Oregon,[79] Washington,[80] and British Columbia.[81]

Canada

In British Columbia, 103 more deaths than expected in a four day period were referred to the coroner up to June 29,[82][83][84] with the number rising to 321 the following day.[5] The chief coroner of the province also noted that in the five years preceding the event, the province had had only three casualties related to heat.[5] Due to unprecedented emergency call volume, emergency services left behind bodies of victims as the police and ambulances continued to respond to other calls. E-Comm emergency dispatchers answered nearly 15,300 calls on June 26 and 27; this is about 55 percent above normal for the month.[82] From June 25–28, British Columbia Emergency Health Services ambulances responded to 187 heat exhaustion calls and 52 heat stroke calls.[85]

On June 28, 15 school districts in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, including all districts within Vancouver, closed due to the heat and their lack of sufficient cooling infrastructure;[86][87] many have also changed, or shortened, Tuesday schedules to avoid the heat.[88] COVID-19 vaccination sites have also endured disruption because of the weather conditions.[88]

The heat wave caused rapid snowmelt of some of the Rocky Mountains snowcaps, which triggered a week-long evacuation order in the Pemberton Valley due to rising water levels.[89] It has also made electricity demand soar to levels never seen before – BC Hydro reported consumption levels reaching 8,500 MW,[90] while AESO, the Albertan electricity regulator, noted demand inching towards an all-time high (11,721 MW), which prompted the operator to formally ask consumers to conserve energy.[91] Additionally, Beaumont issued a mandatory ban on non-essential water usage, citing drought conditions.[91]

The extreme heat led to exceptionally dangerous wildfire conditions,[85] which led Mike Flannigan, a University of Alberta wildfire scientist, to say that the summer fire season could be "horrific" if the extreme conditions persisted.[92] At least 19 wildfires ignited between June 27 and 29, but most remained under 5 hectares (12 acres);[92] one fire, however, grew to at least 200 hectares (490 acres) by June 29, prompting evacuations.[85] On June 30, further orders were given, when two large fires spread out of control - the one near Kamloops Lake grew to 50 square kilometres (19 sq mi) as of June 30, and the other one, north of Lillooet, was only slightly smaller.[93][94]

Agriculture has also seen losses: raspberry farms in the Lower Mainland were reported to be struggling with spoilt crops, while in southern Alberta, the heat has set fire to the wheat fields in some places, which, combined with a severe drought in the province, has put the harvest in jeopardy.[95]

United States

The heat wave inflicted damage on the infrastructure across the whole Pacific Northwest. Roads, including Interstate 5, began to buckle due to thermal expansion, which led to closures and other inconveniences for drivers.[96][97][98] Heat induced rail distortion, called sun kink, on the route of the Amtrak Cascades required operation of the passenger train at a slower than normal speed.[99]

Oregon

A farm worker in St. Paul, died due to the heat, according to Oregon OSHA.[100] Two individuals in King County, which includes Seattle, died of hyperthermia, according to the county medical examiner's office.[100] Two homeless people died of probable heat-related causes in Bend on June 28.[101]

In Eugene, where the qualifiers for the 2020 Summer Olympics were held, the heat caused evacuation of the stadium and postponement of some events to the evening hours, as the temperature of the stadium's track exceeded 150 °F (66 °C).[102][103] It also caused an athlete to withdraw from the race.[103]

Salem recorded at least 30 heat-related injuries throughout the heat wave. 22 of those injuries occurred from June 25 to June 27 and an additional 12 injuries occurred on the afternoon of June 28. Heat-related injuries included symptoms of heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and heat exposure. An increase in heat-related illnesses was also reported statewide throughout Oregon during the heat wave.[58] Two swimmers went missing in the Willamette River.[58]

In the Portland metropolitan area, TriMet suspended MAX Light Rail and WES Commuter Rail service for part of June 27 and all of June 28 as the cables from which the light rail cars drew electricity had sagged.[104][105]

Washington

In King County, home to Seattle, thirteen people are known to have died from the heat as of June 30. Three more casualties were reported in Snohomish County and two more in the Spokane area. Most of the deaths occurred among the elderly.[106] At least three people have drowned statewide, trying to escape from the heat.[107]

A public swimming pool in Seattle's Rainier Beach neighborhood was closed due to dangerously high deck temperatures.[108][109] The city announced it would hose down steel drawbridges with cool water to prevent them from getting stuck due to thermal expansion.[110] In Eastern Washington, power outages were reported in Spokane, some of which were done in order to reduce the load on the electrical systems.[111][112][113][114]

10 million pounds of fruit a day were being harvested in the Pacific Northwest at the time the heat wave struck.[115] Farmers in Eastern Washington facing a loss of the cherry crop sent workers into orchards at night for their health safety.[116] The raspberry crop in Whatcom County, Washington, 85% of the nation's total production, was endangered.[117]


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Further reading

External links