Welcome to the heat dome. The Pacific Northwest is in the middle of an extreme heat wave, producing record-high temperatures and weather that the region has never experienced before. As the heat continues to climb, it is starting to take its toll on just about everything — from infrastructure to literal mountains.
First, a quick explainer: The Pacific Northwest, including cities like Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, is experiencing a weather phenomenon known as a heat dome. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this happens when the atmosphere traps warm ocean air, usually because jet streams, or bands of strong winds in the atmosphere, become stuck in place. That is exactly what has happened over the Pacific Northwest, resulting in a heat wave that simply isn't moving.
So, instead of a heat wave that would eventually pass, we have a heat dome — an unmoving block of heat that is lingering over the region for days on end. In this case, the result is triple-digit heat hounding an area that is used to much more mild weather. More than 13 million people are now living under excessive heat alerts.
That ongoing, concentrated heat is starting to have troubling and harmful effects. In Seattle, just 44% of households have air conditioning, according to the Census Bureau's American Housing Survey — and that is way up from just six years earlier, thanks to heat waves becoming more common in the region. It used to be simply unnecessary for folks in the region to have an AC unit, even during the summer; now there's a rush to buy them, according to The New York Times.
It's not just people who are feeling the heat, though. Essential infrastructure in cities and towns stuck under the heat dome is starting to melt, according to a report from Earther. In Portland, the city's streetcar service was forced to shut down over the weekend because the unexpected heat started to melt the power cables. In Seattle, the pavement on some city streets has gotten so hot that it has buckled, leaving some roads unusable, Vice reported. And in Canada, record temperatures are hitting the Vancouver-area mountain ranges, melting snow that typically remains throughout the summer season. That has created flood risks for nearby communities, which aren't prepared for such an event because, well, it's never happened before.
On top of all this, there is additional pressure being put on the power grid, as more people stay inside and fire up their air conditioners. Portland has already experienced some power outages, per Earther, and it's likely that there are more to come. Power grids aren't always designed to operate at full strength in extreme weather that is outside the norm for a region — just look at what happened to Texas' electrical grid during the winter storm earlier this year.
The heat dome is expected to break at some point this week. This is supposed to be a once-a-millennium event, but in reality it's likely to happen much more often than that as climate change continues to rear its ugly head. It's clear that we are unprepared for the worst — which isn't promising, because the worst is likely yet to come.