2021 has proven to be a year of noteworthy climate change-related events, none more evident than the recent heatwave sweeping over the northwest U.S. and parts of Canada. Here are some of the reasons why this heatwave should worry you.
These heat records are indicative of an important measurement of climate change.
One misunderstanding of climate change is that, because of increasing average temperatures, cold temperatures and record colds won’t happen or that the existence of colder days somehow disproves climate change.
There will still be cold temperatures, but they will be rarer in comparison to hot temperatures. One measurement showing the impact of climate change from earlier decades in the 20th century compared to more recent decades is found by taking the ratio of record high temperatures compared to record low temperatures.
In the United States, from the 1950s to the 1980s, the ratio was roughly 1:1 between record highs and lows in the contiguous U.S. During the 2000s, the ratio was around 2:1, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The western heatwave in 2021 has already shattered several heat records in what has become a disturbing trend over the past several years. Seattle broke records in the triple digits that were set just in the past decade. As average temperatures rise, the ratio will favor record highs.
The Northwest U.S. isn’t prepared for these temperatures.
Because of the rarity of major heatwaves, many residents in the northwest were unprepared. Residents in cities like Seattle and Portland still don’t have sufficient air conditioning.
Heatwaves and high temperatures in general don’t just mean increased health risks associated with heat. When combined with the megadrought sweeping states like California and Oregon, leading to extremely dry environments in chaparral biomes, it’s the perfect recipe for wildfires.
This won’t be the last major heat story for the west coast.
While it’s tempting to think of what’s happening in the northwest as an aberration, the truth is that this will only be one part of a much larger story about what’s happening in this region because of climate change.
This problem will only get worse if we continue warming the planet. Humans, especially those along the northwest, are going to have to prepare for a new future that involves frequent new heat records and dryness.