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Heat wave serves Washington state a lesson in climate adaptation, mitigation

July 29, 2022 Updated Fri., July 29, 2022 at 11:35 a.m.

A paddle boarder is pictured at Alki Beach as excessive heat warnings remain in effect a day after record-breaking temperatures resulted from a historic heatwave throughout the region in Seattle, Washington on June 29, 2021.    (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
A paddle boarder is pictured at Alki Beach as excessive heat warnings remain in effect a day after record-breaking temperatures resulted from a historic heatwave throughout the region in Seattle, Washington on June 29, 2021.   (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Nicholas Turner The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — For better or worse, this heat wave is forcing Washington to recognize and confront the impacts of climate change.

Last year’s “heat dome,” while jarring and traumatic for many, was an exceptional event. Earlier this week, King County officials warned that wildfires near Seattle, once thought impossible, are a growing threat.

While that would be rare, projections say this heat wave is anything but.

As the city endures — or even celebrates — several days at or above 90 degrees that could stretch into the weekend, these deviations from the region’s mild summers are predicted to become part of Seattle’s fabric.

Efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change, however, could backfire if they’re not just and equitable.

In Georgetown, a south Seattle neighborhood literally surrounded by industrial polluters, the effects of extreme heat are often more pronounced. Cars rush across the First Avenue South Bridge, planes fly in and out of King County International Airport, and industrial manufacturers line the Duwamish Water — which was designated a toxic Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Greg Ramirez is a lifelong Georgetown resident, father of two young children and chair of the Georgetown Community Council’s board of directors. He’s worried about the future of his community.

“How are we creating accessible spaces within communities for people to go during this type of inclement weather?” he said. “How are we going to make sure we’re taking care of everyone?”

Local and state officials are employing lessons learned from a year ago, but experts warned that adaptation and mitigation measures are effective only if they also address inequity and environmental justice.

Scientific studies have found links between air pollution and childhood asthma, while other reports show a correlation between race or socioeconomic status and the effects of extreme heat on health.

Ramirez urged the city of Seattle to create publicly accessible green spaces in his diverse community that allow residents to escape the heat and protect themselves when they can’t afford to do it at home.

Extreme heat also carries added risks for children, the elderly and people with physical and mental health issues. People living outside or in low-income housing without air conditioning are also at greater risk of heat sickness and death.

Climate scientists have long predicted that extreme heat will grow in frequency, duration and intensity as humanity continues to burn fossil fuels.

In particular, the Seattle region is seeing an upward trend in heat waves that last longer and cause higher temperatures at night, said state climatologist Nick Bond. While temperatures this week are high, they’re not unprecedented, he said, nor are they nearly as hot as last year.

But even for those not living on the margins, adapting to the heat is a challenge.

Bond, 68, and his 61-year-old wife have been taking refuge at night in the basement of their home in North Seattle. The couple have been sleeping there under a fan for the greater part of the week, as temperatures in the main part of the house reached 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

“From a human health perspective, those hot nights are especially important if folks without air conditioning can’t relieve the thermal stresses that build up during the day,” he said. “That’s when the health problems really crop up.”

Temperatures on Thursday peaked at 93 degrees in the Seattle area, according to the National Weather Service. The heat is expected to crest on Saturday before staying high but cooling down to the 80s on Sunday and the 70s early next week.

This, following an exceptionally wet spring, makes for a vexing year in Washington. But weather events like these can enhance public awareness.

Experts think people are making that connection between hotter summers and climate change, but whether the public recognizes the rarity of last year’s heat dome and the growing frequency of this year’s heat wave remains to be seen.

“I don’t know that people are making that distinction,” said Meade Krosby, senior scientist for the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, and director of the university’s Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Still, she said, heat waves like this are an opportunity to take stock of the steps that have been taken to adjust to these changes.

“It’s a really important opportunity to educate the public about climate change and what they can do and what needs to be done to mitigate worsening impacts,” she said.

Heat waves in particular are stark examples of climate change because they’re experienced by nearly everyone simultaneously, said Lara Whitely Binder, King County’s climate preparedness program manager.

“It’s the embodiment of climate change,” she said. The impacts of flooding and sea level rise, while damaging, are more often localized and therefore easier to ignore. Heat waves and wildfire smoke, not so much.

“Everybody’s talking about how hot it is,” Binder said. “So it creates this shared memory of what climate change feels like, and how climate change can affect our communities, our families, our homes, our bodies.”

It’s common for people to buy air conditioning units before, during or immediately after a heat wave or hot weather. But AC units lead to more energy consumption, and that can lead to the burning of more fossil fuels.

Krosby, from the UW, recommended the use of natural or less energy intensive solutions to avoid what she calls “maladaptation” — options that appear to solve the problem but actually make it worse in the long term.

Heat pumps, for example, offer a more efficient alternative to household furnaces and air conditioning. Though they can be more expensive, such alternatives help ensure that energy use is being kept to a minimum.

The state has been helping residents buy heat pumps since 2014 through its weatherization program. Now, the state wants to extend and expand that, said Becky Kelley, a senior climate policy adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee.

The state Department of Commerce has also been helping low-income households buy AC units and air purifiers for two years when northbound winds brought smoke from raging fires in Oregon.

“We’re having to retool a lot of programs to address these new realities and make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep residents safe and healthy in the face of these threats,” she said.

She said the state Department of Labor and Industries wants to protect outdoor workers by making permanent a set of recently adopted emergency rules that require mandatory water, shade, breaks and support if they start to show signs of heat illness.

But these steps, while helpful, are only the beginning.

The bulk of the work lies in making sure adaptation and mitigation measures are made accessible in the communities that can’t afford them, said Vicky Raya, King County’s climate equity and community partnerships program manager.

“When we experience these things — this prolonged heat wave — it’s really a catalyst to say, ‘Let’s funnel some of these resources to those places,’ ” Raya said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

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