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For once-mild Seattle, extreme summer heat waves are the new normal

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·8 min read
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Jim Benvenga has lived in Seattle for almost 50 years, and until last week he never thought he needed air conditioning.

“For many, many years nobody ever talked about needing air conditioning because it never really got warm enough so you would need it,” Benvenga told Yahoo News while a contractor was at work installing an electric heat pump, which will provide heat and air conditioning in his home. “I guess occasionally you would get one day that was 90 degrees, but you never had it stay warm for long periods.”

Thanks to climate change, that’s no longer the case. For six straight days last week, in fact, temperatures in the once-mild metropolis on Puget Sound were above 90 degrees.

“It’s just been the last four or five years, when we've started to get heat spells where it stays in the 90s for a week,” Benvenga said.

The sun shines near the Space Needle in Seattle.
The sun shines near the Space Needle in Seattle on June 28, 2021. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

This year’s heat wave was actually less severe than the heat dome that descended on the Pacific Northwest last summer. In that episode, Seattle set an all-time record for its highest temperature — 108 degrees — and had three consecutive days of over 100 degrees. (The city previously had broken triple digits on only three days throughout its entire history.)

Washington state reported 100 heat-related deaths during last year’s weeklong hot spell. Humans weren’t the only affected species: In a region famed for its seafood, more than 1 billion sea creatures perished in the heat.

An international team of 27 scientists calculated that such extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest was “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.

Last summer, Benvenga and his wife, Veronica Mratinich, escaped the city in advance of the warm weather, retreating to a beachfront condo near the Canadian border. This year they were in the city. On the first night after it hit 90 degrees, they tried using a product called a Chillow, which is essentially a pouch that can be filled with water and placed inside one’s pillow. Mratinich also wore a wet shirt.

“It's been really difficult to sleep because it's just so warm,” Benvenga said. His sister-in-law was visiting for one night, and she decided to sleep outside on a deck because of the heat.

“You try various things to cool off,” Benvenga said. This year's heat wave is suspected to have led to 14 deaths in Oregon and three in Washington.

A man stands in the doorway of an RV and holds several bottles of water.
Eddy Norby, who lives in an RV, talks with volunteers from the Salvation Army Northwest Division during a heat wave in Seattle. (Karen Ducey/Reuters)

By week’s end the couple had relented, shelling out $15,000 for a new heating and cooling system. (Heat pumps, which use electric power to move heat from the air or ground to condition indoor spaces, have a lower carbon footprint than gas or oil burners and save money on heating bills in the long run, but they are expensive to install.)

Benvenga and Mratinich aren’t alone. Many Seattleites are now doing the once-unthinkable and buying air conditioners. Seattle-based New York Times reporter Mike Baker tweeted on Sunday evening that it was still over 90 degrees in his house and that it may be “time to surrender and get a window unit.”

In 2013, just 31% of Seattle-area homes had air conditioning; that share swelled to 44% by 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. But among the 15 largest metro areas in the United States, Seattle still has the lowest proportion of homes with air conditioning.

Of course, not everyone can afford air conditioning. In Seattle, the highest-income households are 17 percentage points more likely to have it than the lowest-income households, according to Emily Moore, senior researcher at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank.

According to the city’s Office of Civil Rights, communities of color are more likely to have more poorly ventilated homes and less tree cover to provide shade.

Compared with data from 1970, Seattle’s average summer temperature is now 3.1 degrees higher and the city now averages eight more days of 85-degree-plus heat each year than it did, according to the research organization Climate Central. (Nationally, since 1970, 96% of the 246 U.S. locations that Climate Central studied had an increase in their summer average temperature.)

“Running through the sprinkler and chasing the ice cream truck used to seem like a treat and now, even as an adult, feels like more of a means of survival,” Rebecca Rogers, a 39-year-old lifelong Seattle resident, told Yahoo News.

The heat alone is not the only drawback of climate change, she noted. Hotter temperatures and droughts in the Northwest have also led to unusually bad fire seasons.

“A few more recent summers here have also involved learning how to deal with wildfire smoke — from local fires and fires as far away as California,” Rogers said. “A lot of people were scrounging for masks — pre-COVID times, obviously — and crafting a lot of DIY air filters, because that smoke really takes a toll on your lungs.”

“I first moved to Seattle in 1999,” Lisa Hymas, executive editor at Canary Media, a website covering clean energy and climate-related technology, told Yahoo News. “It used to be that summers in the Pacific Northwest were perfect: They were 75 degrees and breezy. Even though I cover climate change all the time, this weather is still surprising.”

People wade and float on inflatable tubes in water with the Space Needle building in the background.
Seattle residents cool off at Alki Beach on June 29, 2021. (Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

Washington’s state government has been at the leading edge of climate change policy. More than 80% of Seattle’s electricity comes from hydropower, a low-carbon source, so increased electricity demand from air conditioning won’t have a major impact on the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

In an effort to bolster the state’s resilience to climate change and to lower its carbon footprint, an update to the state building code adopted last year requires builders to install electric heat pumps in most new commercial buildings and multifamily residences with four or more floors.

“Washington is taking steps in the right direction,” Moore said. “A similar requirement for new residential buildings will hopefully follow later this year.”

Last week, Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) opened four public cooling centers and encouraged the public to use 17 library branches that have air conditioning. OEM is also giving out portable air conditioners in disadvantaged communities.

More needs to be done, however, including increasing greenery in disadvantaged communities to lessen the urban heat island effect, according to the city’s Office of Civil Rights.

In late June, King County, which includes Seattle, announced a plan to develop its first-ever Extreme Heat Mitigation Strategy.

People view the Space Needed as smoke covers the Seattle skyline.
Seattleites view the Space Needle as smoke from wildfires covers the skyline behind it in September 2020. (Karen Ducey/Reuters)

Some federal help may be on the way as well. The Inflation Reduction Act — the budget deal that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., struck with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week — includes credits covering up to 30% of the cost of replacing appliances with more efficient models, including up to $600 for central air conditioning systems and windows, and up to $2,000 for heat pumps and heat-pump water heaters. The bill also includes $3 billion for environmental justice block grants and technical assistance for disadvantaged communities that can be used for, among other purposes, addressing the health effects of climate change.

This comes on top of the White House's unveiling last week of a multipronged plan to deal with extreme heat, including $2.3 billion in funding to “help communities increase resilience to heat waves, drought, wildfires, flood, hurricanes, and other hazards,” and new guidance to allow the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to be used by local governments for home air-conditioning equipment and community cooling centers. On Monday, the White House also announced $1 billion in new climate resiliency funds for communities across the country.

But even Seattle’s OEM admits that it will be a long time before the city has become fully prepared for the changes it faces.

“It’s going to be happening over decades,” Seattle OEM spokesperson Kate Hutton recently told the website the Urbanist. “There’s not going to be chunks of money that we can improve every building. Our heat planning is a bit more challenging than other cities … simply because of the reality with air conditioning.”

And absent dramatic global action to avert catastrophic climate change, the heat itself and related effects like wildfires are going to get worse.

“A lot of us moved here because we don't really want to be in hot weather,” Hymas said. “[The heat wave] is a sign of weird changes to come, and I find that unsettling.”

Correction: The highest income households in Seattle are 17 percentage points more likely to have air conditioning than the lowest income households.

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