Northwest Heat Wave Is a Symptom of Terrifying Runaway Climate Feedback Loops

The village of Lytton, British Columbia, just northeast of Vancouver, saw temperatures on Sunday top 116 degrees. The roads are buckling in Portland, Oregon, under the onslaught of the heat, and the power cables on their streetcars are melting. The historic temperature spike is being caused by a “heat dome” above the affected region, meteorologists say, a confluence of events so rare they only come together every 1,000 years or so. Thanks to anthropogenic climate disruption — a fancy way of saying “humans did this” — these thousand-year events are becoming annual calamities.

“One of the primary reasons I moved to the Pacific Northwest was because of what I knew was coming in the climate crisis,” Dahr Jamail, who reported on climate for many years for Truthout, told me on Tuesday. Jamail lives in a small town in Washington State. “I’d done my research. I knew the projections for potable water availability, temperature spikes, arable land availability and where the climate impacts would be the mildest. For all of those, and more, the Pacific Northwest was one of the best places to live in the contiguous 48 states.”

However, Jamail noted, even since moving to Washington several years ago, he’s seen marked climate shifts.

“Where I live on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula, it was 97 yesterday,” continued Jamail. “The day before it was almost as hot. The concrete slab upon which my home stands was the only cool spot. By the early afternoon, I was lying on it face down for respite. Across the water in Seattle, the Emerald City had never seen 100 degrees. Yesterday was the third time in the last three days it saw triple digits, and it was still 90 degrees at 8pm. All this, when less than a year ago, this region had the worst air quality in the world for days on end as we were engulfed in wildfire smoke blowing in from California.”

This is it. This is here. This is now. Even the safest places provide no safety. The theoretical has become actual; we have crossed the threshold into the unmistakable consequences of our horrid stewardship of this ridiculously precious planet and its ecosystems.

The western U.S. appears to be caught in a positive climate feedback loop, though there is little objectively positive about it. A “feedback loop” from the perspective of climate change “is the equivalent of a vicious or virtuous circle — something that accelerates or decelerates a warming trend,” according to a BBC climate report from earlier this year. “A positive feedback accelerates a temperature rise, whereas a negative feedback decelerates it.”

One example of a current and ongoing positive feedback loop is taking place in the Siberian tundra. Human-caused warming has led to the melting of the Siberian permafrost, which in turn has led to the release of billions of tons of methane out of the ground and into the atmosphere. Methane is a warming accelerant, one of the most dangerous kinds we are dealing with. When it gets dumped into the air in such quantities, warming is accelerated, more permafrost melts, more methane is released, warming is further accelerated, etc.

The feedback loop out west — human-caused warming leading to a massive drought which exacerbates warming, etc. — has come to include the current heat dome phenomenon. Put bluntly, the dome is making every other climate-related impact worse, and the potential consequences go far beyond the dangers posed by high heat to human health.

People out west are sitting in deep dread of the looming fire season, which could be worse than any we have seen. The drought has worsened, and the snow pack in the mountains — a vital feeder to the water table — is all but gone. With the arrival of the heat dome, much of the region is a bomb waiting to go off.

If the fire season this year is as bad or worse than expected, the next domino to fall in the effects of climate disruption will be potable water, which makes all this nothing less than an existential national emergency. From The New York Times:

When wildfires blaze across the West, as they have with increasing ferocity as the region has warmed, the focus is often on the immediate devastation — forests destroyed, infrastructure damaged, homes burned, lives lost. But about two-thirds of drinking water in the United States originates in forests. And when wildfires affect watersheds, cities can face a different kind of impact, long after the flames are out.

In Colorado’s Front Range, erosion from fire-damaged slopes during the summer rains could turn the flow of the Poudre and its tributaries dark with sediment, dissolved nutrients and heavy metals, as well as debris. This could clog intake pipes, reduce the capacity of reservoirs, cause algal blooms and cloud and contaminate the water, sharply raising maintenance and treatment costs. In the worst case, the water would be untreatable, forcing the cities to use alternate supplies for a time.

As climate change helps make wildfires burn hotter and longer, the risks to water supplies grow. But most people don’t think about the risks, said Kevin Bladon, a hydrologist at Oregon State University, even after a damaging fire. “Here we are in 2021,” he said. “We’re really removed from the 2020 wildfire season. Most people are thinking the problems are over.”

(Emphasis added.)

“The runaway feedback loops of the climate crisis are in full swing,” notes Jamail. “Most of the unraveling is occurring at a pace far more accelerated than the worst-case projections of our climate models. That wildfires are scorching millions of acres every year at a record pace should not come as a surprise. Nor should the impact of this on human water supplies. But what will likely come as a surprise to most will be the abrupt panic when the prices of food and potable water spike, or when the place where they live finally becomes unlivable for lack of water.”

The future is hot. The future is dry. The future is on fire. The future is now.