“An unusually intense, early season heat wave is gripping areas from Texas to the entire Southwest, including major metro area such as Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Sacramento,” is how one media source explained the “dangerous” heat wave, with temperatures between 100-106°F (Sacramento) and 122°F (Death Valley) that swept over Texas, Arizona and California earlier this month, causing the National Weather Service to issue a high warning for heat-related illnesses.
We should all, by now, be questioning every media report on extreme weather events that use words like “unusual” or “rare” to describe weather that is, thanks to climate change impacts, becoming decidedly less rare and tipping into the “seasonal” category.
Just look at what’s happening here in western Washington and Oregon this month: flooding followed by a heat wave. The daily newspaper in Oregon’s capital city described the cause of the recent heavy rains as a “rare atmospheric river,” but how “rare” are these atmospheric rivers? If you’re living in a pre-climate change mindset, these events might seem like they are still an anomaly. Unfortunately, atmospheric rivers, which drench an area with heavy rainfall, often causing flooding events usually only seen once every decade or even once every century, are becoming more frequent thanks to climate change.
“These are natural events, which happen all the time around the world. But in British Columbia, they seem to be happening more frequently. The region has seen an uptick in the frequency of landfalling atmospheric rivers since the 1940s, according to one recent study,” a November 2021 article in Scientific American magazine noted. “Research suggests that atmospheric rivers all over the world likely will grow bigger and more intense as the climate warms. That could mean more severe rainfall when they hit land.”
According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Climate Signals, not only do these atmospheric rivers “cause most of the flood damage in the Western United States,” but “rising temperatures mean more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, increasing runoff risks associated with atmospheric river storms.”
And while many native Pacific Northwesterners (or even those who have lived through more than a dozen Pacific Northwest winters) might be thinking that a little rainfall never hurt anyone and that, surely, their community can weather some flooding a few times a year, we also know that “heat dome” events like the one that killed more than 100 people in Portland this time last year are also becoming more common thanks to climate change.
The 2021 heat wave that suffocated western Washington and Oregon in June 2021, even took some scientists by surprise.
“We saw the forecasts and it was hard to believe as we don’t really have heatwaves like that. In Seattle it’s usually so overcast during June we call it ‘Juneuary,’” Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told The Guardian newspaper. “You see the heatwaves hit other places and you know it’s bad but there’s not the sense of urgency until it hits you.”
We know climate change is causing once rare, extreme-weather events to become much less rare and, in many cases, even more destructive. We also know that, while there are things we can do as individuals to make a small dent in climate change, unless we take collective action as entire communities, climate change will worsen — flooding, wildfires, water shortages, droughts will become more prevalent — and surviving on this planet will become even more difficult for our children and grandchildren.
The issue of climate resiliency — and of how to combat climate change through public policy-making – should, by now, be a highlight of city council, planning commission and school board discussions involving future facility, housing, land management and transportation needs.
Unfortunately, as we know, having attended the majority of these city- and school district-level meetings, climate resiliency is rarely mentioned at a local level here in Camas and Washougal. Local politicians are usually more concerned about keeping costs to a minimum than in ensuring future facilities or publicly funded vehicles — school buses, fire engines, police cars – are shifting away from models that contribute to climate change instead of helping alleviate the problem.
Other cities are starting to take definitive action on a local level. Port Angeles, in Washington’s Puget Sound, for instance, may soon add a Climate Resiliency Plan to the city’s comprehensive plan, which will, if approved, include 70 actions local officials can take to help that city cope with the impacts of runaway climate change and reduce Port Angeles’ carbon footprint.
The city’s staff noted in a report to the city council that the “proposed changes continue support of the public interest and seek to improve public health, safety, and welfare by providing policy guidance to reduce cost of City services promote sustainability, consider long-range planning and economic decision-making, reduce environmental impacts, reduce waste and promote regional and environmental resilience.”
This should not be a controversial topic. Scientists have long warned us about what will happen if we could not collectively wean ourselves, our cities and our industries off fossil fuels. Those ramifications are now playing out in annual “rare” weather events.
We also know that waiting for change to come at a federal — or even state level as we realized with the recent death of Washington’s House Bill 1099, which would have added climate change and housing shortages to the state’s Growth Management Act considerations — means we may wait too long. These conversations need to be happening on a local level today.
As city and school district leaders in Camas and Washougal continue to plan for future transportation and infrastructure needs, we must urge these officials to think beyond “the most cost-effective” solutions and focus on the types of “green building” and climate resiliency solutions that will help Camas-Washougal residents safe from the “rare” climate risks that will soon become our new normal.