The Fuse

Heat Dome Wreaks Havoc, Previews Future of Climate Disaster

by Nick Cunningham | July 02, 2021

Dozens of people perished in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in recent days as temperatures in the Pacific Northwest soared to unfathomable highs.

The “heat dome” that smothered the region has made it painfully clear that the climate crisis continues to unfold in real time. Not only has the latest disaster proved to be lethal, but it stretched power grids, squeezed energy supplies, melted infrastructure, and put on vivid display how far behind the U.S. is in both planning for inevitable disasters and how it still has not mustered up a climate policy commensurate with the crisis.

Heat Dome descends on Northwest

Many people do not have air conditioning in the Pacific Northwest, where summers are sunny but nighttime temperatures typically remain cool. The heat dome brought temperatures to extremes never before seen in the region, with many places seeing temperatures in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not clear at this time how many people died, but the toll is likely in the hundreds.

The small village of Lytton, BC suffered the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada on consecutive days, topping off at around 121.2 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday. A day later, the town was engulfed in flames as a sudden and explosive wildfire incinerated most of the town. Smoke blanketed the province.

Portland’s Streetcar system shutdown because power cables melted. Roads also buckled in the extreme heat. To make matters worse, the extreme drought in much of the American West is priming the region for a catastrophic wildfire season, a reality hard to imagine after the devastating 2020 wildfire season. Major fires have already started in Northern California and British Columbia, dramatically earlier in the season than is typical.

Weather forecasts suggest another heat wave is just around the corner, with Northern California set to bear the brunt of it. The fires raging from the most recent heat dome are still raging, and more heat lies ahead.

If anyone thought climate change was a crisis for another day, the record temperatures, drought and wildfires should put that to rest. The climate crisis is already here – and it will only get worse.

Climate, infrastructure and the work ahead

The disaster also illustrated several feedback loops at play, and not just climatological ones. Suffocating heat led to millions of people rushing out looking for air conditioning. Cranking up the AC pushed power demand to the limit. Mercifully, there were no widespread blackouts, although malfunctioning equipment led to smaller power outages in certain places.

The spike in temperatures has also contributed to a rise in natural gas prices, with August contracts jumping to $3.61/MMBtu. Prices have now essentially doubled from early 2020 levels. Regional prices are even higher. According to Natural Gas Intelligence, natural gas prices in California soared to $7/MMBtu.

Of course, more use of AC and more natural gas demand only results in more power sector emissions.

Drought has resulted in historically low water levels across the major rivers of the American West. The Hoover Dam’s reservoir is at its lowest level since 1937. The result could be electricity generation from hydropower down 11 percent this year on average, according to the Energy Information Administration.

However, certain areas will be hit harder than others. Roughly 85 percent of California is in extreme or exceptional drought. The state’s snowpack, which feeds rivers throughout the summer, has essentially vanished. Less water available for hydropower leads to another feedback loop – less hydropower means an even greater reliance on natural gas.

But what appears to be disastrous conditions in 2021 is merely a preview of the future. Cracked roads, melting power cables, and power outages also demonstrate that American infrastructure is simply not built for what is coming in the 21st century.

“As climate change induces extreme weather events more and more frequently, we need to make investments to build a more resilient grid,” President Joe Biden said in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Upgrading the grid would be a good start, but the work ahead is much bigger.

But the most important piece of legislation the U.S. Congress is considering is a framework that would spend hundreds of billions of dollars on roads, bridges, rail, and ports, but would jettison many climate and energy policies that are necessary to ratchet down emissions, accelerate the energy transition, and prepare infrastructure and communities for a world of a dramatically changed climate.

The contrast between people suffering in the Pacific Northwest in an alarming event that can only be described as a taste of what is to come, and a U.S. Congress only prepared to spend a few hundred billion to repave highways and fix some bridges, is stark.

Unless the U.S. makes massive investments in transforming many interlocking and overlapping systems – infrastructure, energy production, housing, ecosystems, and disaster response, to name a few – more disasters like the recent heat wave are not only inevitable, but are destined to get worse.