The record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest is pushing people’s bodies to the limit — sending more than 1,100 people to the hospital for possible heat-related illness in recent days.
There’s no question about it, scientists and health experts say: This is the result of climate change, and the future only holds more of the same.
“The record-shattering extreme heat we’re experiencing is just the latest example of our climate crisis and how it’s impacting human health now,” Jeff Duchin, a health officer for Public Health in Seattle and King County, Washington, said in a statement. “Climate change is a health emergency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is literally a matter of life and death.”
Washington state hospitals reported 676 emergency department visits for suspected heat-related illness since Friday, with 81 leading to inpatient admission, according to Cory Portner, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Health.
That’s a staggeringly high health toll. Between 2000 and 2018, summer heat-related hospitalizations in Washington only twice surpassed 51, according to state data.
Meanwhile, 459 went to emergency departments or urgent care clinics for heat illnesses in Oregon amid the heat wave, according to a state report.
At least 97 emergency visits for heat illness occurred in Portland and surrounding Multnomah County between Friday and Sunday.
“Normally we would expect about 1 or 2 visits for heat illness in the same time period, and it is not unusual for the County to have zero visits for heat illness on a typical summer day,” Kate Yeiser, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, told BuzzFeed News in an email.
Moreover, the county’s Emergency Medical Services department received over 400 calls during that time. “We can’t say exactly how many calls were related to heat but that number is unheard of for our county,” Yeiser said.
Extreme heat is deadly, killing more than 11,000 people across the US since 1979. Everyone is at risk of heat exhaustion or the more serious condition of heatstroke, which could result in a high fever, nausea or vomiting, and even a loss of consciousness.
Certain groups of people, such as babies and kids, pregnant people, and the elderly, are more vulnerable to heat stress because their bodies aren’t efficient at regulating their internal temperatures. Others have a higher heat exposure because of their jobs or because they don’t have access to air conditioning, such as families with low incomes or people without stable housing.
This part of the country also isn’t prepared for this kind of punishing heat. Take Seattle, where only 44% of homes have air conditioning because of the city’s historically moderate temperatures, making it one of the least air-conditioned cities in the country, according to the Seattle Times.
The skyrocketing emergency calls and hospital visits in the Pacific Northwest have coincided with additional impacts to the region. Highways and streets have cracked and buckled from the heat, closing roads and impacting traffic. Even flights have been impacted. Restaurants have closed down. There has been a shortage of air conditioners and fans. Hundreds upon hundreds of people have sought refuge in air-conditioned libraries, malls, movie theaters, and other officially designated “cooling centers.”
The punishingly hot temperatures driving these impacts have shattered all-time high records day after day.
The Portland Airport officially hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, June 28, setting a new all-time record high in the city, according to a tweet published by the Portland division of the National Weather Service. This beat the previous record of 112 degrees set the previous day.
Further north, in Washington, the city of Bellingham hit 99 degrees (the previous record was 96 degrees set back in 2009), Seattle Airport reached 108 degrees (the previous record of 104 degrees was set the day before), and the state’s capital city of Olympia hit 109 degrees (the previous record of 105 degrees was also set on Sunday).
Across the northern border, the town of Lytton set a new Canadian record of about 118 degrees on June 28, smashing the previous record set the day before of nearly 116 degrees.
Even climate scientists who have long predicted rising temperatures are astonished by the current heat wave.
“I’ve worked with climate projections for 25 years so we knew this was coming: yet it’s still a shocker when you see these records falling in real life in a place you’re from,” tweeted Katharine Hayhoe, a climate professor at Texas Tech University.
This article has been updated with the latest heat-related emergency visit statistics for Oregon.
Correction: Jeff Duchin's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.