Heat waves could kill hundreds more in Seattle as planet warms, researchers say

Evan Bush, The Seattle Times on

Published in Weather News

"Think about suburban single-family homes with a lot of leafy coverage of trees, houses with flow of air, versus someone who lives in an apartment complex," he said.

Heat often brings other threats.

"Heat waves are just one part of the package of health threats we're going to see with climate change," Duchin said. "It comes along with extreme weather events, wildfires, poor air quality and the cascading effects those events cause. It's hard to look at it in isolation."

Heat waves around the world have claimed thousands of victims.

Europe experienced a record heat wave in 2003. Wildfires burned in Portugal and Spain, according to The New York Times. Britain canceled trains and reduced speeds on busy routes for fear high temperatures would buckle the tracks. In London, Trafalgar Square fountains became wading pools.

By summer's end, about 70,000 deaths were associated with the heat. A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that climate change was responsible for some of those deaths.

In 1995, hundreds died when a heat wave caught Chicago off-guard. On the worst day, refrigerated trucks were called to help after the county morgue was full, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Seattle has not seen "a large epidemic heat wave" like Chicago's, Duchin said, but "when we have heat waves, we have increased EMS calls, hospitalizations, increased mortality rates."

According to the Seattle Emergency Management office's Seattle Hazard Identification and Vulnerability Analysis, "Since the mid-1970s, an average of three or four heat-related fatalities has occurred each summer in Seattle. During excessively warm summers, such as the summer of 1992, up to 50 to 60 deaths have occurred."

In the Northwest, nighttime temperatures are of particular concern.

"One of the characteristics of our heat events in Washington: We usually are able to cool off at night," Bumbaco said.

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But that relief has been increasingly fleeting. In the Pacific Northwest, "our nighttime temperatures are warming faster than our daytime temperatures," she said.

Washington's minimum temperatures in summer have warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit between 1895 and 2018, according to an interactive data tool provided by the climatology office. Over that same period, Seattle's minimum summer temperatures are up nearly 3.9 degrees.

Government officials are planning for heat in the short- and long-term.

When the National Weather Service issues a heat warning, Seattle's emergency management office convenes city departments.

Officials coordinate public warning messages, limit city employees' time outside and exposure to heat and open public spaces to give people access to air-conditioning, said Barb Graff, the department's emergency director.

Duchin said King County and Seattle are mapping "heat islands," or areas that get excessively hot, perhaps because they lack trees or parks. The county in 2015 committed to plant a million trees, which could help reduce local temperatures.

Still, "the adaptation solutions are very unsatisfying," Duchin said. "If we don't get the emissions piece under control, we're going to suffer and have preventable death happen. We'll be stuck minimizing preventable death, which is a frustrating and sad place to be."

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