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Pacific Northwest heatwave is a warning of what's to come

The unprecedented heatwave that is responsible for killing hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest has been linked to global warming. According to a new study published by the World Weather Attribution, the heatwave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.

“The observed temperatures were so extreme that they lie far outside the range of historically observed temperatures. This makes it hard to quantify with confidence how rare the event was,” explained the researchers.

“In the most realistic statistical analysis the event is estimated to be about a 1 in 1000 year event in today’s climate.”

The experts warn that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, extreme heatwaves will become much more common – occurring every five to 10 years by the 2040s.

“People need to realize that heat waves are killers, and they are by far the deadliest extreme event,” said study co-author Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford.

“Heatwaves are really changing so much more and so much faster than all other extreme events. Heat preparation and preventing death during heat waves need to be a No. 1 priority for every city authority.”

The Pacific Northwest heatwave, which struck in the last week of June, claimed hundreds of lives in British Columbia, Oregon and Washington state. Dozens of cities experienced record high temperatures, and many records were broken by several degrees.

The heat was so intense in this typically mild region of the Pacific Northwest that power cables melted, knocking out electricity to thousands of people. The researchers determined that climate change either exacerbated the rare heat event, or caused it altogether. 

“Our results provide a strong warning: our rapidly warming climate is bringing us into uncharted territory that has significant consequences for health, well-being, and livelihoods. Adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed to prepare societies for a very different future,” said the study authors. 

“Adaptation measures need to be much more ambitious and take account of the rising risk of heatwaves around the world, including surprises such as this unexpected extreme. Deaths from extreme heat can be dramatically reduced with adequate preparedness action.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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