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Climate situation is urgent

Much to the chagrin of those in the community less enthused about environmental protection, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of topics to write about. Climate change, all by itself, could provide enough to fill this space every other weekend.

Yet I try not to dwell on global warming and climate change, since there is so much other notable environmental news to share. I also fear climate change fatigue could cause many to tune out the news.

But a recent report from Weather World’s Dr. Jon Nese brought the subject back to the forefront for me, once again demonstrating that the issue simply won’t go away. Earlier this month Neese’s Weather Whys segment looked at the oppressive heat wave which overwhelmed the Pacific Northwest the last week of June.

In order to fully understand why this event was so extraordinary, it is helpful to better understand the climate of coastal Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. A relatively warm ocean current influences the weather a great deal in these parts, producing massive amounts of rainfall and especially wet winters.

The close proximity to the ocean water also moderates temperatures, meaning they have relatively mild winters and cooler summers. Consequently, the Pacific Northwest Coast has typically experienced record highs close to those we see here in Pennsylvania. Prior to this bizarre heat wave, all-time highs ranged from 103 in Seattle to 108 in Salem and Vancouver.

So when readings went over 110, people were checking to make sure their thermometers were working properly. The prizes went to Salem at 117 and Portland at 116. Seattle came in at 108, but this was still 43 degrees warmer than an average late June day. Nearly every weather station in the region exceeded their average for the two days by more than 35 degrees.

For context, a similar heatwave in Pennsylvania would have brought temperatures of 122 in Philadelphia and 115 here in Altoona.

Temperature records go back over a century in every one of these cities and Vancouver and Salem broke records set in 1891 and 1892. This was clearly not just any heatwave. Nothing has come close in recorded weather history.

And that’s the other astounding part of this story. When temperature records are broken, especially in places which have long periods of data, they are typically broken by a degree or two. Nese’s research found that across the United States, records are broken by an average of 1.3 degrees. These coastal cities, by contrast, broke records set between 1891 and 1945 by five or more. Salem, at 117, and Portland, at 116, shattered their old marks by nine degrees.

Such an extreme event by itself might not be so alarming. But when added to the list of unsettling climate catastrophes of the last decade or more, it seems to make an even stronger case for the urgency of the situation.

Nicholas Bond, Washington’s state climatologist and a researcher at the University of Washington was shocked not just by the magnitude by which records are being broken, but by the timeframe such change has been occurring. “I didn’t really expect anything like this until further into the future.”

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