The recent heat wave that hit Washington set a record for the deadliest weather disaster in the state since 1910. The event, which officials say was caused by the increasing issue of climate change and global warming, brought upon a continuously rising death toll of over 100 throughout Washington state. A lack of heat protection in the state led to a dry spell and a drought emergency, as well as the death of over one billion sea animals.
The heat wave began on June 26 and ended around July 2, with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and peaking at 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Over this time period, at least 112 people were killed in Washington due to the extreme heat. The last time the state experienced a death toll like this due to a weather event was in 1910, when 96 people were killed in an avalanche at Stevens Pass. However, between 2015 and 2019, only 36 Washington residents died due to heat stress, according to DOH records. In Washington, the majority of the deaths from the recent heat wave came from the state’s most populous counties: King, Pierce and Snohomish, and 20 out of 39 counties reported at least one death.
The DOH reported that Washington’s hospitals had more than 2,000 heat-related emergency room visits between June 25 and July 1, which may continue to grow over the summer. The DOH will continue to update on the heat wave crisis as well as heat-related deaths by county.
In addition to the many lives lost, the extreme heat had a disastrous effect on the lives of marine animals as well, including mussels, clams, oysters, sand dollars, barnacles, sea stars, moon snails and other tideland creatures. According to KUOW, biologists estimate that hundreds of millions of mussels, if not more, died in the heat wave across Washington and British Columbia. The total number of animals that died is estimated to be well over one billion.
Dead clams, starfish, mussels and slugs washed up on shore by the thousand. Mussels are in the middle of the food chain, meaning that their sharp decline will affect how other species, such as starfish, survive. The heat wave brought upon many arising issues with the sea’s ecosystem and is expected to show significant change with how these animals will operate in the future.
The lack of air conditioning and heat protection among Washingtonians also came up as an issue with the heat wave. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 only 44.3% of Seattle homes had air conditioning. Many people were not properly equipped to deal with the heat wave that hit record-breaking temperatures in June. The heat was so bad that public spaces in Bellevue were established as “cooling centers” to provide residents with relief. Public transport also lent a hand with the situation, providing free transportation to and from these centers around King County. Governor Inslee went as far as lifting the capacity limit at cooling centers so more people could be protected from the heat.
The heat, in addition with the humidity, put many people at the risk of heat-related illnesses because of the scarceness of air conditioning. Due to COVID-19 affecting supply chains, it had already been difficult enough to get air conditioning units in stock. Adding hot weather on top of this existing problem made some hardware stores go out of stock completely, leaving only fans left on shelves, if that.
The heat wave we experienced leads us to question how this will affect Washington state in the future with respect to weather and climate change. Richard Tebbetts, a geography instructor at Bellevue College, expressed his perspective on the issue. “That heat wave was something else. Although I was on a cross country trip when it happened (June 29, I was in Erie, PA), I think it was a perfect storm of factors: A high pressure system with lots of hot, dry air from Eastern Washington.” Tebbetts says he doesn’t expect another extreme heat wave like this to occur in Bellevue this year, however it may be more likely in the future. He expresses that this event was purely “climate change in action.”
With the current state of global warming, Tebbetts believes that we can expect unprecedented heat waves like these to occur more frequently in Washington state in the future. He says that “after just five 100 degree days [in] the last 130 years here,” he expects “at least one 100 degree day in Bellevue [to occur in] five of the next 10 years.”
The heat wave brought on many disastrous events that may become more apparent as the issue of climate change continues to grow in Washington state. Although it is unlikely that we will be able to put a full stop to climate change, Tebbetts believes we can reach a state of carbon neutrality within a few years by taking action in a series of solutions as a society, such as: “driving electric cars, using hydroelectricity, wind power and solar power (i.e. renewables) as we are currently doing (the PNW is leading the USA in renewables), drive less, and have even fewer babies by adopting internationally.”
The toll is apparent on our shores and in our homes, and this heat wave was only the first of many to come.