Pacific Northwest Heatwave Threatens Infrastructure, Lives

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest took a hit from the record-breaking heatwave sweeping the region. Temperatures in Portland, OR, reached a record-breaking 115 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, and Seattle saw temperatures of up to 104. In response, Portland Streetcar services and MAX Light Rail temporarily suspended all operations, citing pressure on the power grid and overheating overhead wires; some drivers even witnessed pavement buckling in the heat on Interstate 5. Experts say that increasing heatwaves will continue to threaten infrastructure and lives.

Why This Matters: Climate change is increasing temperatures across the globe, but it’s also leading to extreme weather events like deep freezes and heatwaves in places that are underprepared to cope. The nation’s power grids have come under scrutiny in recent months, after only a few inches of snow brought the entire Texas grid to its knees, and California officials warned of possible heatwave blackouts.

BIPOC communities are especially at risk and are more likely to lack access to air conditioning and live in urban heat islands. But climate change isn’t only threatening electricity and public health; it’s also threatening our physical infrastructure. As the President and Congress move forward with a $579 billion infrastructure package, experts say we must update, upgrade, and prepare our infrastructure for the worst.

Chasing Pavement: Portland has been hit particularly hard by the heatwave; the city opened up cooling centers for those in need across the city, some accessible by MAX train. But on Sunday, the MAX trains were shut down due to the heat. “The MAX system is designed to operate in conditions up to 110 degrees,” TriMet said in a statement. “Forecasts show it will likely only get hotter tomorrow without sufficient time to cool down.” Portland Streetcar, which also ceased operations temporarily, tweeted an image of some of its power cables warped from the heat.

Meanwhile, buckling pavement in five different locations along I-5 resulted in lane closures and emergency repairs. Experts say that heat expanded the cement, causing it to push against itself, and rise four inches in some areas. Although buses continued to run, the loss of two major transit systems and significant road damage during a weather crisis raises concerns about safety and accessibility. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has stated that one of the ways to prepare communities for the extreme effects of climate change is to give them a multitude of sustainable transit options. However, those transit options will have to be able to function in more extreme weather conditions. 

On Wednesday, President Biden and Vice-President Harris met virtually with governors of Western states to discuss the historic heatwave and raging wildfires in the region. “Right now, we have to act and act fast. We’re late in the game here,” said the President. “The truth is we’re playing catch up. This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it.” The White House announced that the recent bipartisan infrastructure agreement would include $50 billion to fight wildfires and drought.

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