Heat Dome Death Toll Tops 500 in Pacific Northwest

Image: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Hundreds of people have now died as a result of a heatwave that scorched the Pacific Northwest (PNW) this past week. In Oregon, 63 people have died in the last seven days, and British Columbia reported 486 deaths between last Friday and Wednesday alone. As the COVID-19 Delta variant begins making its way through states, hospitals are worried that an influx of heat-related cases will overwhelm their systems.

One thing is for sure: more record-breaking temperatures are on the way, and the nation isn’t prepared.

Why This Matters: Heat domes like the one in the Pacific Northwest are a symptom of drought and rising temperatures. When the ground becomes too dry, it heats more quickly. When a high-pressure system moves in, it traps that heat, creating a “dome” that acts as a pot lid, trapping populated areas in sweltering conditions.

The West is now facing the longest drought in recorded history, and future heat domes are a certainty. Each year, heat kills 12,000 people in the U.S., and BIPOC and poor communities are the most at risk. The crisis in the PNW shows that those numbers may soon skyrocket if we don’t take swift action to reduce temperature rise.


Beating the Heat: Portland broke its all-time heat record twice this past week, and older citizens paid the price.

  • Forty-five of Oregon’s 63 heat-related deaths occurred in one county and the victims ranged in age from 44 to 97.
  • The county coroner reported that all of these deaths were due to hyperthermia; only 12 hyperthermia deaths occurred in the county between 2017 and 2019.
  • At least 20 people have died in Washington state. Steve Mitchell, the medical director of the emergency department at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said that the influx of heat-related cases reminded him of early 2020.

“It felt very much like what happened in the initial days of trying to deal with the original outbreak [of the virus] at the Life Care Center in Kirkland,” he told the Seattle Times. “We got to the point where facilities were struggling with basic equipment, like ventilators.”

As many feared, the demand for air conditioning and power overwhelmed utilities last week. Avista Utilities in Spokane implemented rolling blackouts to avoid power grid failure and limit blackouts to one hour per household. In addition to energy infrastructure, roads and public transportation have also suffered from the heat; two major public transport systems in Portland ceased operations temporarily due to heat-related complications.

The President isn’t shying away from the reality of the situation.

The extreme heat we’re seeing in the West is not only a risk amplifier for wildfires, it’s a threat in and of itself,” he said this week. “People are hurting. It’s more dangerous for kids to play outside. Roads are buckling under the heat…We need people to check on their neighbors, especially seniors who may need a helping hand.”

National Climate adviser Gina McCarthy says it’s time to adapt to the “new normal,” but that we can’t stop fighting to save our planet, “we have to adjust to this as best we can, but frankly we have to start thinking about how our future looks.”

This latest heatwave was a warning, that nowhere is prepared for this type of heat, yet we have to start preparing communities for adaptation strategies immediately.

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