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Media reaction Pacific north-west heat dome and the role of climate change
30 June 2021 17:20

Media reaction: Pacific north-west ‘heat dome’ and the role of climate change

Multiple Authors

Media analysisMedia reaction: Pacific north-west ‘heat dome’ and the role of climate change

Less than two weeks after record-breaking temperatures forced California into a state of emergency, a severe heatwave has swept over northwestern US and Canada, shattering records across the region.

In Lytton, a small village in Canada, record-breaking temperatures of 46.1C (115F), 47.9C (118F) and 49.6C (121.3F) were recorded on three consecutive days. Before this heatwave, the highest recorded temperature in the region was 45C. Similarly, Seattle and Portland in the US have seen three consecutive days of record-breaking temperatures.

The heat has driven many cities to a standstill, forcing schools, Covid-19 vaccination centres and restaurants to close, as well as prompting governments to relax social-distancing rules to allow people without air conditioning to shelter in emergency cooling centres. Nevertheless, hospitals are filling up with patients with “heat-related illnesses” and the death toll has begun to rise.

The heatwave is driven by an area of high atmospheric pressure sitting over the North American continent, which many media outlets are calling a “heat dome”. However, US president Joe Biden and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau have joined many climate scientists and media reports in linking the extreme temperatures to climate change.

In this article, Carbon Brief summarises how the extreme heat and the role of climate change has been covered by the media.

How has the heatwave developed?

On Wednesday 23 June, US weather forecasters warned that a “historic and dangerous heatwave” would hit over the weekend, cautioning that cities in the northwest US, such as Seattle, Portland and Spokane, could see temperatures near and above 38C (100F).

As an area of high pressure began to close in on Friday 25 June, the first temperature record – a record-high minimum daily temperature in Seattle – was broken. “If you’re keeping a written list of the records that will fall, you might need a few pages by early next week,” NWS Seattle tweeted.

And, as the weekend began, media outlets were reporting that temperature records were falling in earnest. Portland, in Oregon, broke its all-time highest temperature record on Saturday, the Guardian reported, with temperatures reaching 42.2C (108F). Temperatures climbed further to 44.4C (112F) on Sunday, according to CBS News. And BBC News reported that temperatures reached 46.1C (115F) on Monday – marking the third day in a row the city set a new all-time high.

As the week progressed, other cities began reporting consecutive broken records, too. “To put it in perspective, today will likely go down in history as the hottest day ever recorded for places such as Seattle, WA and Portland, OR,” the National Weather service said on Tuesday.

According to BBC News, Seattle recorded temperatures of 38.3C (101F) on Saturday afternoon – the city’s record-high temperature for June. The Seattle Times reported that temperatures reached 40C (104F) on Sunday before rising again to 42.2C (108F) on Monday evening. This exceeds the city’s previous record of 39.4C (103F) from 2009, the Washington Post noted.

Similarly, Lytton – a small village in British Columbia, Canada – reported record-breaking temperatures on three consecutive days, according to CBC. The outlet reported that highs of 49.6C were reached on Tuesday in the village of Lytton, adding:

“Lytton, a village in the Fraser Canyon located about 260 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, also saw record-breaking highs of 47.9C on Monday and 46.6C on Sunday. Before this week, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada was 45C in Saskatchewan in 1937.”

While Reuters reported that temperatures “fell dramatically” in some parts of the US on Tuesday, a Met Office forecast shows that temperatures are still significantly higher than the climatological average.

What are the impacts of the extreme heat?

Extreme temperatures can be deadly – especially to children, elderly people and people with underlying health conditions. The US National Weather Service issued excessive-heat warnings on Monday 28 June for much of Washington and Oregon, as well as for sections of California, Idaho and Nevada.

As temperatures rose, Reuters reported that provinces in western Canada “closed schools and universities”, so that people could stay inside. AP news added that in Seattle, the extreme heat forced a wide range of institutions to shut down:

“The heat forced schools and businesses to close to protect workers and guests, including some places like outdoor pools and ice cream shops where people seek relief from the heat. Covid-19 testing sites and mobile vaccination units were out of service as well.”

Many outlets reported on the disruption to people’s day-to-day lives, as sheltering from the heat became the main priority. “Pacific north-west cities shatter heat records again, life grinds to a halt,” read one Reuters headline.

Perishable items are covered with a layer of plastic to keep in the cool air at a Fred Meyer grocery store in Portland
Perishable items are covered with a layer of plastic to keep in the cool air at a Fred Meyer grocery store in Portland. Credit: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo.

Meanwhile, CBC reported that air-conditioning units were selling out. BBC News noted that many people British Columbia do not have air conditioning, as temperatures are usually far milder, adding:

“One Vancouver resident told AFP news agency that hotels seemed to be sold out, as people flocked there for air-conditioning, adding: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. I hope it never becomes like this ever again.’”

ABC News added that fewer than half of the residents in Seattle have air-conditioning in their homes, as average temperatures in June are usually around 21C.

To combat the heat, many counties opened up buildings with air-conditioning – such as cinemas and shopping malls – to the public as emergency “cooling shelters”, reported Oregon Live. According to CNBC, Amazon turned part of its downtown Seattle headquarters into an emergency public cooling centre, while Reuters noted that Multnomah County, which includes Portland, opened 11 such centres – mostly in public libraries.

Despite these precautions, though, Buzzfeed News reported that, across Washington and Oregon, more than 1,100 people have been sent to hospital for “possible heat-related illness” in recent days.

As the heat began to subside later in the week, coverage shifted from broken records to rising death tolls. BBC News reported on Tuesday that in Vancouver alone, police had responded to more than 130 sudden deaths, in which heat was often a “contributing factor”. The outlet added:

“A doctor in a Seattle hospital told the Seattle Times the number of patients streaming in with heat stroke was comparable to the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian reported on Wednesday that British Columbia has seen a 195% increase in sudden deaths and the New York Times ran a piece on Thursday entitled, “heat-related death toll climbs to nearly 100 in Washington State and Oregon”. Huffpost and CNBC also ran pieces on death tolls in Canadian and US cities.

The extreme temperatures have also been punishing for local infrastructure. An Independent piece entitled, “Train cables melt and roads buckle in Northwest’s 46C heatwave,” noted that asphalt on the highway had “expanded and ruptured due to the hot weather”, rendering many roads unsafe for travel.

The Portland Streetcar tweeted that it was cancelling service for the day after power cables melted in the heat. Meanwhile, the Portland train service reduced the maximum speed of its services, running the announcement: “Once we hit 90F Saturday through Monday, all MAX [Metropolitan Area Express] lines will reduce speed to no more than 35mph for the rest of the day. Expect delays on all MAX lines.”

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that the utility firm Pacific Power, which serves 10 states, asked customers to use less energy during the heatwave. 

“With temperatures reaching 46C, we noted the licence plate on our vehicle surface had bubbled,” Bob Chamberlin, 56, who lives in North Vancouver, told the Times.

The Guardian reported on the disruption in Portland over the weekend:

“The hot weather had berry farmers scrambling to pick crops before they rot on the vine and fisheries managers working to keep endangered sockeye salmon safe from too-warm river water. Stores sold out of portable air conditioners and fans, some hospitals cancelled outdoor vaccination clinics, cities opened cooling centres, baseball teams cancelled or moved up weekend games, and utilities braced for possible power outages.”

Even as temperatures begin to subside, Karin Bumbaco, the assistant climatologist for the state of Washington, told the New York Times that the prolonged heat “might actually have more implications for our agriculture and potential wildfires” than the record highs.

By Wednesday, as the heat in some regions began to subside, Reuters reported that officials were “braced” for wildfires. In Lytton – the village in British Columbia where the most extreme temperatures were seen – a fire broke out on Wednesday evening, forcing the entire village to evacuate, the Guardian reported.

More than 1,000 people were evacuated, CBC News reported on Thursday. It added:

“The loss includes ‘most homes’ and structures in the village, as well as the local ambulance station and RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] detachment. The local member of parliament said 90% of the village is gone. Online community groups were filled with posts from people desperate for information about family, friends and pets left behind.”

British Columbia (BC) remier John Horgan told reporters that “62 new fires were reported in BC in the past 24 hours, forcing authorities to issue new evacuation orders affecting some 700 people in BC’s Cariboo region,” Reuters reported on Friday. The Daily Telegraph also covered news of the fire.

What is a ‘heat dome’?

The extreme temperatures in western parts of the US and Canada over the past week have been driven by a phenomenon known as a “heat dome” – a large and long-lasting region of high pressure sitting in the upper atmosphere.

The Washington Post described the heat dome as a “sprawling zone of high pressure centered near the US-Canada border”, adding that its strength is “so statistically rare that it might be expected only once every several thousand years on average”. 

This high-pressure zone “acts like a lid on a pot, trapping heat so that it accumulates”, wrote the New York Times. A piece in the Atlantic called it “a hot-air balloon, thwarted”. The Atlantic went on:

“In a heat dome, the [hot] air’s rise is impeded by a high-pressure system sitting on the atmosphere. When the air tries to rise, the system above nudges it back down to the surface. As the air descends, and more and more of the atmosphere’s weight settles on top of it, it becomes denser and hotter…The air can’t escape this cycle, so it just circulates up and down, getting hotter and hotter.”

Vox reported that a heat dome also “squeezes clouds away, which gives the sun an unobstructed line of sight to the ground” and allows it to warm the surface more effectively. The timing of this particular heat dome – coming just after the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice – also heightens the sun’s heating ability, the Washington Post reported:

“The high summer sun angle combined with those cloudless skies then in turn further heats the surface.”

A separate piece in the Washington Post also noted that the longest days of the year are “giving the heat dome extra time to increase temperatures”.

Writing in a “guest essay” for the New York Times, climate scientist Prof Michael Mann and climate change communicator Susan Joy Hassol pointed to the role of the jet stream in allowing the high-pressure “blocking” weather pattern to form (see Carbon Brief’s explainer on blocking for more details). They wrote:

“The heatwave afflicting the Pacific north-west is characterised by what is known as an omega block pattern, because of the shape the sharply curving jet stream makes, like the Greek letter omega (Ω). This omega curve is part of a pattern of pronounced north-south wiggles made by the jet stream as it traverses the northern hemisphere.”

According to Mann and Hassol, such jet stream patterns are “an example of a phenomenon known as wave resonance, which scientists (including one of us) have shown is increasingly favoured by the considerable warming of the Arctic”. (Links between rapid Arctic warming and extreme weather in the mid-latitudes are the subject of ongoing scientific debate – see Carbon Brief’s explainer for more.)

The Washington Post reported that, while heat domes are a common summertime occurrence in parts of the US south-west, the current pressure system is “striking for its incredible strength, geographic scope and persistence”.

The ongoing drought in the western US may be making the heatwave hotter as well. Dr Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NPR that drought and heatwaves are a “vicious cycle”. He said:

“The drought is leading to extremely low soil moisture, which is making it easier for these high-pressure systems to generate extreme heat waves because more of the sun’s energy is going into heating the atmosphere rather than evaporating nonexistent water in the soil.”

In the coming week, the western part of the heat dome will begin “gradually eroding”, according to the hazards outlook published on 28 June by the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center. As the pressure system erodes, cloud cover and moist air will begin to provide relief from the heat.

What role has climate change played?

Among climate scientists, the consensus is clear – more than it is for perhaps any other type of extreme weather event – that heatwaves are being made worse by climate change. In fact, a 2016 report published by the US National Academy of Sciences on extreme weather attribution concluded:

“Heat events are arguably the extreme weather events for which attribution studies are most straightforward and have the longest history.”

The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2013, stated that it is “very likely” that humans were contributing to the observed changes in heatwaves since 1950, and “virtually certain” that warm temperature extremes will occur more frequently as global temperatures continue to increase. 

Echoing the article by Mann and Hassol in the New York Times, CNN reported that climate change may be increasing the jet stream’s propensity to get “stuck”, which can cause “severe heat, drought or wildfires”. Bloomberg reported that other record-breaking heatwaves this summer – such as those in eastern Europe and Siberia – have also been linked to the same jet stream patterns.

Meanwhile, climate science professor and Carbon Brief contributing editor, Prof Simon Lewis, penned an opinion piece for the Guardian: entitled, “Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans”. Lewis highlighted extreme temperatures in the Middle East and Asia:

“Another heatwave earlier in June saw five Middle East countries top 50C. The extreme heat reached Pakistan, where 20 children in one class were reported to have fallen unconscious and needed hospital treatment for heat stress. Thankfully, they all survived.”

He continued: “In places in the Middle East and Asia something truly terrifying is emerging: the creation of unliveable heat.”

Met Office climate scientist Dr Nikos Christidis was quoted in a blog post as saying that a heatwave of this magnitude “would have been almost impossible” without human contributions to climate change. He added: 

“[Analysis] suggests that by the end of the century these extreme temperatures are more likely than not. Human influence is estimated to have increased the likelihood of a new record several thousand times.”

Prof Friederike Otto, associate director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, was one of many scientists who tweeted about the links between the extreme heat and human-driven climate change. She wrote that the team at World Weather Attribution is “working hard” on understanding how much local factors intensified or weakened the heatwave. (For more on rapid attribution studies, see Carbon Brief’s recent guest post by Otto and others.)

Whether or not a heatwave can be linked to climate change is “not even an interesting scientific question anymore”, wrote Prof Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University.

Dessler told Axios

“The mismatch between what [weather events] we are adapted for and what we actually experience can generate huge negative impacts that seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere – even though we’ve been predicting them for literally decades.”

Prof Erica Fleishman told the New York Times that “we can say extreme weather is happening more as climate changes and will continue to happen more”. Fleishman, who is the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, added that the event is “extraordinary”, but warned that it “is not likely to be the last”.

But, despite the clear connection to climate change, many local media outlets have shied away from mentioning it in their reporting. Chase Woodruff, a Colorado-based environmental policy reporter, analysed nearly 150 articles in the local news and found that just six of them had referred to climate change in any capacity.

What has the media response been?

The record-breaking heat across Canada and the western US has received widespread national and international attention over the past few days – and many media outlets have also been keeping up a running narrative of the temperature records being broken. 

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang reported on Tuesday that the heatwave is “obliterating scores of long-standing records” – including a list of the 33 “all-time record highs” set since Saturday. Similarly, the New York Times said that Canada’s climate record has been “shattered” and BBC News reported that the heatwave is “sending records tumbling”.

As the heatwave progressed, reporters began to place more emphasis on the link between climate change and the extreme temperatures. On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that President Joe Biden had “joined scientists in blaming the climate crisis for [the] record-shattering heatwave”. The newspaper continues: 

“‘Anybody ever believe you’d turn on the news and see it’s 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon? 116 degrees,’ Biden said in a barbed criticism of climate deniers. ‘But don’t worry – there is no global warming because it’s just a figment of our imaginations.’”

The Guardian published a video of Biden’s comments. “Climate change is driving a dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought,” Biden said. He added that “wildfires are not a partisan phenomenon. They don’t stop at a county or a state line or country line for that matter.”

Reuters reported: “President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the US was behind in preparing for what could be a record number of forest fires this year because of drought and high temperatures and pledged to pay federal firefighters more.”

Meanwhile, BBC News reported on Thursday that Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau had “described heatwaves as a growing problem, and went on to talk about climate change”.

The Guardian added that, according to Canadian climate scientist Dr Katherine Hayhoe, “Canada was warming twice as fast than the rest of the world and monthly higher temperatures were being broken three times more frequently than cold temperature records”.

The Washington Post’s weather editor Jason Samenow penned a piece warning that “climate change studies have warned for more than three decades that this is our future”. In the opening paragraphs, he wrote:

“Many have expressed shock about this unprecedented heat wave. Yet the writing has been on the wall for decades. Since the 1970s and 1980s, climate scientists have warned that global warming would make heat waves more frequent, long-lasting and intense. Maybe it’s only now that the reality is hitting home.”

A separate analysis piece in the Washington Post noted that 55 countries have set new all-time highs just in the past decade, stating that this is “obviously a function of the world’s normal temperatures shifting higher as a result of climate change”.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post ran an editorial on Wednesday entitled, “Scalding temperatures give a taste of the suffering global warming brings”: 

“Americans should get used to terms such as ‘heat dome’ and ‘megadrought’. The sorts of extreme weather events that experts warned would become increasingly frequent are occurring. Searing temperatures across the Pacific Northwest are just the latest example.”

The paper warned that “human society has developed within a narrow temperature band”, adding:

“Hospitals are unused to handling symptoms of extreme heat exposure. Similarly, the dry docks in Virginia’s Hampton Roads were built for a lower sea level, and the fisheries in Maine rely on water temperatures remaining within a certain range.”

A further Washington Post article stated that the event “could not have been this extreme without human-caused climate change”. It continued: 

“The role of climate change has been to substantially increase the likelihood of record-breaking temperatures. Simple logic dictates a climate experiencing a background warming of several degrees will be more prone to hotter heat events.”

The Associated Press also reported that the heatwave was “worsened by human-caused climate change”. Meanwhile, Scientific American covered the heatwave under the headline, “Unprecedented heat wave in Pacific north-west driven by climate change”, and the Independent ran a piece entitled, “Once-in-a-millennium heat dome lodges over US and Canada in preview of future climate disaster”.

The Hill and the Washington Post published comments from scientists on the link between climate change and extreme temperatures. Meanwhile, the heatwave was the cover story for Libération in France on Thursday, with a full page image of a burning sun, the title: “Canada 49.6C” and subtitle: “Climate change.”

In the Guardian, columnist Arwa Mahdawi penned an opinion piece entitled, “Extreme weather is no longer ‘unprecedented’ – it has become the norm”, saying that “none of what is happening should be a surprise to anybody. The climate crisis is not some big secret – it hasn’t been for a long time”.

NBC News described how climate change “loads the dice” for heatwaves. However, Dessler – writing for Grist – argued that the loaded dice analogy is no longer strong enough:

“The analogy that people often use is loading the dice – you have dice and they used to be fair, but now we’re loading up the sixes…But what’s actually happening is we’re hitting the point where we’ve added another side. Now we’re rolling sevens.”

Meanwhile, a Washington Post comment piece by journalist Charlie Warzel highlighted the extreme heatwave of 52C that has hit Pakistan and discussed the “existential dread” of climate change. And CBS News also called the heatwave a “once-in-a-millennium heat” event”, stating:

“Turns out, the [climate] models were correct and we should expect extreme heat waves – even unprecedented ones like this – to become more routine”.

However, climate science researcher Prof Timmons Roberts highlighted that many outlets are still using “pleasant” images in their coverage of the heatwave, which do not show the danger of extreme temperatures. Others to highlight this problem on twitter include Greta Thunberg and Dr Genevieve Guenther.

BBC News ran a piece entitled “US-Canada heatwave: Visual guide to the causes”, including charts and maps of the heatwave, as well as images of its impacts. And in a Guardian opinion piece, meteorologist and author Eric Holthaus said:

“The imagery we should remember from this heatwave isn’t swimming pools and fountains, it’s friends and neighbours sharing air-conditioning amid a pandemic in a city that’s 40 degrees warmer than normal. It’s young people braving heat stroke to demand climate action from a president who promised it to them. It’s the anxiety of not knowing when or where the next heatwave will be, but knowing that it’s coming. It’s about surviving a society where decades of racial segregation means that redlined neighbourhoods are 15 degrees hotter than others.”

Public officials also weighed in. Washington state governor Jay Inslee penned a piece in the Seattle Times, warning that “our recent discomfort is but the tip of the melting iceberg…What we felt this week is just the opening act in a looming global disaster.”

Reporting by the Guardian included comments from Democratic senator Maria Cantwell, who said the heat “illustrated an urgent need for the federal infrastructure package to promote clean energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect people from extreme heat”.

On Friday, the front page of the Guardian featured comments from several scientists, including Prof Sir David King, the former UK chief scientific adviser, who said: “Nowhere is safe…who would have predicted a temperature of 48-49C in British Columbia?”

Friday also saw a wave of fresh comment pieces. Writing in the Guardian, Justin Shaw – creator of the Seattle Weather Blog – said: 

“The heatwave gripping our part of the country has gone from significant to sickening. When a city like Seattle, nestled up against the cool waters of Puget Sound, bakes in triple-digit heat for three days in a row, it’s not a good sign.”

In the Vancouver Sun, Prof Alejandro Adem – president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a professor of mathematics at the University of BC – said that “research is our best tool for dealing with climate change”. And Dr James Dyke – a senior lecturer in global systems at Exeter University – warned in the i newspaper that climate change will “destroy more communities and kill more people” unless emissions are cut.

Man cools off at a cooling shelter in Portland, Oregan
Man cools off at a cooling shelter in Portland, Oregan. Credit: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo.

Other pieces this week also warned that the failing infrastructure highlights the need to implement adaptation measures. “Adaptation, long the neglected arm of climate policy, will need to lead our efforts to address rising global temperatures”, said Atlantic staff writer Robinson Meyer.

Meanwhile, MSNBC called the increase in demand for air conditioning a “catch-22”, stating that “the air conditioning we increasingly need to survive is killing the planet”.

And the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial on Monday entitled, “Record-setting heatwave shows that climate change is creating hell on Earth”, which called the heatwave a “visceral reminder that the world is not moving fast enough to curtail the use of fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions”.

The editorial also noted that both record-breaking highs and lows of temperature have caused power outages in the US this year. It warned:

“The nation’s infrastructure is not prepared to withstand the onslaught of climate change, which can push temperatures to extremes in both directions.”

Update: This piece was updated on 01/07/2021 and 02/07/2021 to add the latest media coverage.

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