Greenpoint: Soaring temps all too ‘normal’

People jump from a pedestrian bridge at Lake Union Park into the water during a heat wave hitting the Pacific Northwest on Sunday, June 27, in Seattle. A day earlier, a record high was set for the day. (The Associated Press)

People jump from a pedestrian bridge at Lake Union Park into the water during a heat wave hitting the Pacific Northwest on Sunday, June 27, in Seattle. A day earlier, a record high was set for the day. (The Associated Press)

It was hot last week, getting well into the 90s even up here in the Southern Adirondacks. We had to do a few things we rarely do — water the garden, cool ourselves with the hose, run the barn fan in the house to blast out some of the hot air.

One unbearably hot week per summer is pretty normal. Here at home, with a little elevation and a lot of trees, we generally stay 5-10 degrees cooler than Albany, and the temps usually drop 20 degrees at night. Not last week.

Our heat wave didn’t break any records. That wasn’t the case in the Pacific Northwest, my old stomping grounds. I contacted a friend in Seattle to ask how she was enjoying life on Mars. “Ha,” she said, “you mean the surface of the sun!” She was waiting for a ferry and the breeze that being on the water would offer.

Seattle is not used to that kind of heat. When I lived there we pulled out our shorts at 78 degrees, and no matter how warm it got on a summer day you needed a sweater at night. Who needs air conditioning when an open window at bedtime will cool your home?

Last week, temperatures in western Oregon and Washington state were 40 degrees above normal averages, hitting 109, 112, 118. Three days of that and more than 100 people died, hospitals saw hundreds more heat-related illnesses, roads buckled, cable car cables melted. Businesses closed, flights were delayed, a farm worker died in a nursery field in Oregon.

It’s the height of cherry season in the Northwest, and some orchards had pickers work overnight shifts to avoid the heat of the day, according to B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission. “Never seen it get this hot,” he told KWG News in Portland.

United Farm Workers noted that this time of year, 10 million pounds of cherries are picked each day in the Pacific Northwest. “Heat like this is hard on cherries and it’s even harder on the workers harvesting them,” the union said on Twitter. “It’s terrifying.”

The UFW has called on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to issue emergency heat protections for farm and outdoor workers, including shade breaks and emergency training, and to make such measures permanent, not seasonal. Oregon’s farm union asked for the same; California already has such laws on the books.

So, is this kind of heat the new normal in the Pacific Northwest? A region known for its cool, rainy weather, now experiencing drought and record-breaking heat waves — in June.

“This is the beginning of a permanent emergency,” Gov. Inslee said in a video address. “That is why it is so disturbing.”

Meteorologists said the “heat dome” over the coastal Pacific Northwest — which has now moved east and inland, bringing record-breaking heat and rolling blackouts — was a high-pressure bubble fueled by warm ocean waters. Heat domes are not uncommon in summer, but as the oceans warm year after year, the domes and the high temperatures they trap could form more often.

“There’s not enough chilling stations in the world to stop this problem if you don’t attack it at its source, which is climate change,” Inslee said.

At home, the heat wave has passed. All our animals had shade and water, and even the household Floridian stayed indoors in the hottest parts of the day. After the first few dry days, thunderstorms watered our gardens and provided evening entertainment. No harm done.

But that doesn’t mean things aren’t changing here, long term. Winters aren’t so cold anymore, and that means we have ticks now — and all the diseases they carry. We have gray squirrels here now, where we used to only have their more northern cousins, the red squirrels. The growing season is definitely longer; maple syruping season is shorter. Ice fishing? We’ve gone two years without a hard freeze on the best lakes.

It’s easy to dismiss heat waves as flukes or normal fluctuations. It’s harder to make changes to prevent these “flukes” from becoming normal. I hope it’s not too late.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on July 18. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life & Arts

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