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Heatwaves hit the Pacific Northwest

Anna Kotlabova
. 5 min read
More than 230 deaths have been reported in British Columbia since Friday as a historic heat wave brings record-high temperatures.

Heatwaves hit the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is shattering temperature records this week with historically hot weather. The current heatwave in the Pacific Northwest is remarkable not only in absolute numbers, but also when taking into consideration the wide margins by which these numbers beat former records. Heatwaves are one of the deadliest forms of extreme weather, making these new developments particularly worrying. 
This extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest is being caused by a heat dome. According to the NOAA, a heat dome is a “high-pressure circulation in the atmosphere [that] acts like a dome or cap, trapping heat at the surface and favoring the formation of a heatwave.”
On June 28th, Canada beat its all-time heat record. This record of 116 degrees Fahrenheit beat the previous record by 3 degrees.
Meanwhile, the day beforehand, the U.S. state of Oregon recorded temperatures of 112 degrees Fahrenheit which beat its previous record of 108.
There are many serious repercussions of extreme heat both from an infrastructure and a public health perspective. 

Infrastructure

Most infrastructure is built to endure a range of temperatures considered normal for a region. With increasingly radical temperature changes, the norms of what temperatures could be expected in a given location are changing dramatically and quickly. We continue to see unprecedented severe weather events.
For example, Europe’s climate is generally very cool. Most buildings do not have air conditioning because the temperatures typically never got hot enough for it to be needed. However, in 2003, 70,000 people were killed in heatwaves, demonstrating the serious consequences that heatwaves can have, especially in geographic locations which are not used to them historically.
Severe heat can impact infrastructure in numerous ways. Severe heat often accompanies droughts which erode soil and increase the risk of flooding by hardening the earth. When storms occur the earth is unable to absorb the water leading to flash floods. Flooding can have disastrous impacts on traffic and other transportation infrastructure. Extreme heat also damages roads by softening asphalt.
Heatwaves also lead to excessive demand for air conditioning, a heavily power-intensive method of cooling down homes and buildings. The stress on electrical supplies can overwhelm the grid and lead to power failures. Alongside the utilities industry, the agricultural industry is another frequent victim of heatwaves. Both crops and livestock suffer or can even be completely destroyed by severe heat.
There are several actions policy makers can take to decrease the impacts of extreme heat on infrastructure. A few suggestions are listed below.
  • Building roads out of materials that are more resistant to heat 
  • Implementing measures for energy efficiency and conservation to protect power grids from being overwhelmed
  • Planting vegetation such as trees in public spaces in cities
  • Covering building walls with vegetation to absorb heat
  • Ensuring that emergency services are well-resourced and well-staffed to deal with increased demand on their services
  • Incentivising people to implement roof cooling measures. This can be done by painting roofs white or covering roofs with reflective materials. 
Apart from its negative effects on infrastructure, heatwaves are also dangerous for public health.

Public Health

According to the World Health Organization, “heatwaves are among the most dangerous of natural hazards, but rarely receive adequate attention because their death tolls and destruction are not always immediately obvious.” 
There are several categories of people that are more vulnerable to the negative effects of heat on health than others. These groups of people should take extra care during extremely hot periods. They include:
  • People with underlying conditions
  • Pregnant women
  • Disabled people
  • Homeless people
  • Young children
  • Elderly people
  • Athletes 
  • Outdoor and manual workers
Human bodies regulate their temperatures effectively. However, when there is an extreme rise in heat, this internal regulation is disrupted. This can result in several serious conditions such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion and even cause death. Fatalities from heat can happen rapidly, or gradually over the course of several days. In fact, heatwaves are one of the deadliest forms of severe weather when taking into account the large volume of delayed fatalities.
Other direct health consequences from heatwaves include the exacerbation of existing chronic illnesses “including cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular disease and diabetes-related conditions.”
However even people with no underlying conditions should be more cautious during a heatwave. Extreme heat often worsens air quality, which can lead to respiratory issues. It also allows for the increased transmission of food and waterborne illnesses, as food is more likely to spoil. 
There are several actions that the public can take to minimise the impact of extreme heat.

Keep buildings cool

  • Open the windows at night and in the early morning to let the cooler air in
  • Close the blinds or curtains during the day in the rooms that get a lot of sunlight 
  • Close doors and windows when using the air conditioning to conserve electricity

Keep out of the heat

  • If you do not have air conditioning at home, go to places that do
  • Avoid going outside during the day
  • Avoid sunlight - try to stay in the shade
  • Avoid exercising strenuously
  • Never leave any person or animal in a parked car

Keep your body hydrated and cool

  • Take cold showers or baths and use cold towels to cool your head down
  • Wear loose clothing and a hat if you go outside
  • Drink lots of water
  • Try to avoid sugar and caffeinated or alcoholic beverages
  • Eat small, protein-rich meals frequently

Conclusion

Today’s [30 June 2021] headline news features a story from Canada. Hundreds of people died in an intense heatwave that set several new heat records. CNN reports "More than 230 deaths have been reported in British Columbia since Friday as a historic heat wave brought record-high temperatures".
Scientists and experts agree that extreme weather events such as record-breaking heatwaves are becoming both more extreme and more frequent. It is now more important than ever to take precautions to protect both infrastructure and public health.
WatchKeeper is a critical event management platform that can help mitigate some of the effects of heatwaves as well as other severe weather events by alerting users of risks, such as extreme weather events, ahead of time.
To find out more about WatchKeeper, please visit watchkeeper.com or email us at info@watchkeeper.com.
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