PORTLAND, OREGON — The streetcars stopped running because power cables were melting. The public pools were shut down to protect lifeguards and pool staff from “severe heat.” Roads and intersections began to buckle. Economic and civic life in this Pacific Northwest city ground to a halt as temperatures soared to an inconceivable 116 F on Monday — just one degree shy of the all-time high in Las Vegas.
Portland is a leafy, tree-festooned city that sits further north than either Toronto or Montreal. A typical hot summer day might spike into the 90s, but this week the city experienced the kind of radiant, baking temperatures and convection-oven winds more typical of Death Valley. A rare high-pressure formation blocked the region’s evening coastal breezes, forming a “heat dome” over Oregon and Washington. The previous record high temperature for Portland was 107, set in 1965 and tied in 1981. On Saturday, the mercury hit 108. On Sunday, it spiked to 112. And then yesterday, 116.
Heat waves are natural phenomena, of course. But such record-shattering heat extremes are one of the most predicted impacts of manmade global warming, which has now run rampant for decades. As meteorologist Eric Holthaus described the record heat: “We’ve left the era of fucking around, and we’re now entering the era of finding out.”
I’ve been writing about global warming for nearly two decades. One of my first features for Rolling Stone, in 2004, “Diary of a Dying Planet,” grappled with the first observable effects of climate change. That story began with a description of a deadly 2003 heat wave that killed some 70,000 people across Europe, and reported that global warming was no longer an over-the-horizon threat, but here and now:
Droughts are longer, torrents heavier, flooding more severe. Heat waves are turned up to 11. “Because of our fossil-fuel burning, we are changing the climate,” says Sir John Houghton, former co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.… Houghton, a mild-mannered knight, insists he’s “not a hyping sort of person.” Yet as the scientist surveys the recent string of heat waves, floods, and other extreme weather wracking the planet, he concludes that they are the “most obvious manifestations” of global warming in our time. “These are the biggest disasters we know in the world,” Houghton says. “They cause more death, more economic loss.… I have no hesitation in describing it as a weapon of mass destruction.”
I remember worrying a bit at the time: Were we overdoing it? Should the language be less strident? But it turned out we we were not sounding the alarm nearly loudly enough. Houghton is no longer with us; he died in April. But as I stepped outside Monday, his words echoed in my ears as a feverish breeze lashed at my face.
I’ve lived in Portland since 2013. When my wife and I were making a choice of where to move our family from California, climate change was a consideration. Portland seemed like a fair bet — far enough from the coast for sea-level rise not to be a worry. Wet enough to be less concerned about fire. North enough to tolerate a few degrees of temperature rise.
But we were naive. In the past year, climate-change-amplified emergencies have twice forced us to seek shelter in our basement for days at a time. Last September, raging fires in forests just dry enough to burn made the skies overhead look like Mordor, and the outside air unbreathable with smoke. This week’s heat wave again made life outdoors intolerable, and our basement was the only place the AC could cool completely. Even as the region’s fever has broken as I write on Tuesday morning, with temperatures blessedly in the 70s, I fear the moisture that the heat dome wicked away from the trees and soil could soon portend a return of the Mordor skies, as fire season ramps up again later this summer.
Before the heat dome hit, Portland was returning to life. Covid restrictions are easing. Eateries across the city have built dining booths atop parking spots in front of their establishments. But this heat wave snapped the city back into a shutdown reminiscent of the worst days of the pandemic. The Alberta Arts District, a bohemian stretch in the city’s Northeast quadrant, is typically crowded with pedestrian traffic. The line at Salt & Straw, the city’s famed craft ice-cream chain, often stretches down the block. But the Alberta shop was shuttered — the HVAC couldn’t cope with the heat. I drove for dozens of blocks and saw only one couple braving the baking sidewalks.
Portland is home to thousands of unsheltered individuals, and temperatures this far above the century mark are a threat to life. The city opened a section of the sprawling Oregon Convention Center as a “cooling center” to give people experiencing homelessness, and other city residents who lack air conditioning, a respite from the heat. The accommodation was far from luxurious, with the inhospitable entrance at a truck-loading dock at the back of the building. Inside a mix of cots and hundreds of mattresses rested on the bare concrete floor, spaced out at six-foot intervals, offering places of rest for people and even their pets. The room was cool enough that one elderly woman napped under an American Red Cross blanket. One corner of the cavernous space was set up as a theater with a Planet of the Apes movie playing on a flatscreen TV.
But not everyone sought refuge from the heat. Downtown, near the train station, is an area with large homeless encampments. Here, shirtless men with dazed looks sat on the ground, leaning up against buildings casting shade. The only obvious option for cooling came from the city’s always-on drinking fountains known as Benson Burblers. A middle-aged man in jean shorts cupped water in his hands and splashed it over his face and neck.
In a city deadened by heat, the only hive of activity I spotted was at the public park that was the epicenter of Portland’s street protests and federal occupation last year. A half-dozen activists sat in folding chairs, camped under a canopy tent that read “Community Jail Support.” They were set up, as usual, to provide what leftists call “mutual aid,” to people exiting jail at the county Justice Center, as well as to a homeless encampment lining the nearby sidewalk. Tables and a shopping cart were stacked with water and Gatorade bottles dropped off by volunteers dedicated to serving these communities.
Portland is not built for this heat. About a third of Portlanders have no air conditioning. That rises to well over half of residents in nearby Seattle. But I’m not sure any place is built for this heat. And that’s the problem. The emerging extremes of climate change are survivable with the right infrastructure. But our legacy infrastructure literally buckles and melts under this new reality. And fixing it is expensive, as champions of President Biden’s climate-focused infrastructure package urgently pointed out:
THE COST OF NOT TAKING ACTION ON CLIMATE IS ALMOST UNIMAGINABLY HIGH. https://t.co/VGCDtMI7GL
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) June 29, 2021
Closer to home, in our yard at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, our thermometer said it was 114 degrees. The heat was oppressive. “Even the breeze is nasty,” my wife told me as she watered our wilted hydrangea and California poppies. Trying to find some distraction in the crisis, we stuck a cast iron pan on the patio pavement. It got up to 150 degrees. My kids and I cooked an egg.
How it's going pic.twitter.com/zfH1r58ujE
— Tim Dickinson (@7im) June 28, 2021
Inspecting the back of my own house, I realized some of the vinyl siding near the roofline had buckled and bent in the punishing sun. After spending a few minutes hosing it with water to prevent further damage, I pulled out my phone to take a picture. I had just long enough to wonder whether insurance covers heat damage before I realized my phone was dead. An error message informed me it had shut itself down “due to heat.”
In the age of modern convenience, even our most modern devices can’t cope at temperatures this high. The time for action on climate change is now, because the alternative is a new normal where life can come to a sudden, and scorching, halt.
UPDATE: On Wednesday state medical officials revealed that at least 63 Oregonians died of heat-related causes during the three days of record temperatures. At least 45 of those deaths occurred in Multnomah county, where Portland is located.