SEATTLE – For two decades Becky Flechtenstein adopted a custom in the Seattle area: to do without air conditioning. With a frugal population living in such a temperate climate, boxing fans blown over the ice and the night breeze from Puget Sound were enough to keep the high point of summer in check.
But the Pacific Northwest summers are no longer what they used to be. When the temperature rises more regularly, Ms. Lichenstein surrendered a few years ago and bought a portable air conditioner. Given the changing climate and its impact, this year they opted for a more powerful solution – a permanent system that was installed just this week.
“I’m very grateful that I can do this,” said Ms. Lichenstein as the workers completed the installation in her two-level home in Tacoma, south of Seattle. “But there is this level of sadness – almost like an era is over and we are entering a new era.”
The timing couldn’t be better for Ms. Lichenstein as the northwest is set to experience a record-breaking heat wave this weekend that has placed over 13 million people under excessive heat warnings. Portland, Oregon, another city where many people live without air conditioning, could reach 109 degrees, which would be a record. New highs could also be reached inland such as Spokane.
Seattle, where official weather stations recorded only three days exceeding 100 degrees in the last century, could potentially record three more by early next week.
The National Weather Service is forecasting a full week with daily highs in Seattle reaching at least the 1980s. The city will flirt with 100 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, almost certainly hit record highs for the month of June and then possibly a new all-time high of 104 degrees on Monday.
As the Seattle saying goes, summer doesn’t start in the city until July 5th, when the cruel and prolonged darkness of the winter season would give way completely to the long rays of sunshine in the mid-1970s. The saying goes back to a time when there was little talk about air conditioning, aside from the rare day the weather could show up well into the 1990s – an event unusual enough for Seattle residents to do well by closing the blinds during the day and opening the windows at sunset.
Or at least that was the deal with Mother Nature. In recent years, Seattle’s weather patterns have undergone a marked shift in the midst of a warming climate, pointing to a bleak future. Forest fire smoke has choked many summer skies. The average number of days that climb to 90 degrees has almost doubled.
As a result, as in many parts of the country where air conditioning was once considered a minor or a luxury, the region’s relationship with air conditioning has changed. In 2013, only 31 percent of households in the greater Seattle area had some type of air conditioning, according to data from the federal government’s American Housing Survey. Just six years later, it was 44 percent and hundreds of thousands of new units.
Jamey Stephens, general manager at Evergreen Home Heating and Energy in Seattle, said the busiest season for the company, founded in 1975, used to be when homeowners looked for heating appliances to prepare for winter. In recent years, the company’s summer schedule has been crammed with technicians scurrying through town retrofitting air conditioning to the region’s old homes.
“It was an explosion of people interested in air conditioning,” said Stephens.
This week, local residents have been desperately looking for possible solutions to keep cool this weekend, but Mr Stephens said his company is now fully booked through August. Hardware stores were cleaned out of smaller air conditioners.
Despite the surge in new air conditioning, the Seattle subway still had the lowest rate among subways recorded in the American Housing Survey in 2019, ahead of San Francisco, where 47 percent said they had units. In Portland, 79 percent had air conditioning. Other large cities, where 90-degree temperatures are more common, such as Houston, had air conditioning in more than 99 percent of households.
The Seattle data shows how vulnerable low-income communities are to climate change. Air conditioning is available in more than half of households with incomes above $ 120,000. For households making $ 50,000 or less, that number is about 34 percent.
Adding to this week’s concern is that the libraries and senior centers, which have historically served as air-conditioned cooling centers for those at risk to congregate during heat waves, are not fully operational due to the pandemic. Some remain closed. Others have limited capacity. As an alternative, officials recommend visiting shopping malls.
Heat is already killing more people in the United States than any other type of severe weather event such as hurricanes or tornadoes.
Conditions are also positioned to exacerbate a historic drought that has gripped much of the west. More than half of the west is suffering from at least “extreme” drought conditions, although the north-west is doing better than the areas further south. The parched conditions are also a cause for concern.
With suffocating heat hitting much of western North America, experts are concerned about human safety and power outages.
- Western Canada: Canada broke a national heat record on June 27 when the temperature in a small town in British Columbia reached nearly 116 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking an 84-year-old record by nearly 3 degrees, with dangerously hot weather expected to continue for several days.
- Pacific Northwest USA: A heat dome has enveloped the region, which has brought temperatures to extreme levels – with temperatures well over 100 degrees – and created dangerous conditions in a part of the country that is not used to oppressive summer weather or air conditioning.
- Heavy dry season: Much of the western half of the United States is suffering from severe drought of historic proportions. Conditions are particularly bad in California and the Southwest, but the drought extends into the Pacific Northwest, much of the Intermountain West, and even the Northern Plains. The extreme heat exacerbates the drought.
- Growing energy shortage: Power outages have increased more than 60 percent since 2015, even though climate change made heat waves worse, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
- The base temperatures rise: New baseline data for temperature, rain, snow, and other weather events show how the climate has changed in the United States. One key takeaway: the country is getting hotter.
Washington state climatologist Nick Bond said he had also observed nightly low temperatures, which have seen a remarkable rise in recent years. This is an even clearer sign of climate change and another local record that could fall this weekend.
While the Seattle area previously only recorded about three days a year climbing over 90 degrees, that has increased to about six in the past decade. Mr Bond said rough climate projections suggest that about a dozen, on average, could be hit over the next two decades.
“There is an unstoppable upward trend,” he said.
On a heat event like this week, Mr Bond said he was concerned about outside workers and people at risk indoors. When a 2009 heat event in the Seattle area broke a record of 103 degrees, two deaths in West Washington were attributed to the heat.
Mr. Bond, who has lived in Seattle since 1980, recalls that he went to bed with an internal temperature of over 90 degrees during the 2009 heatwave and woke up with a restless sleep after a miserable night to find the internal temperatures still in the middle – until over 80.
But he has continued to stick to a life without air conditioning and plans to set up a bed in his basement this weekend to ward off the heat. He has the nagging feeling about Seattle that people can get by without air conditioning. But, he said, there might come a day when his gas stove will be replaced by a heat pump that will keep the house cool in an environmentally friendly way.
“It’s kind of in the back of your mind that we might do this conversion someday,” said Mr. Bond.
Oliver Lockwood, 35, who has lived in Seattle most of his life, started this transformation this week. He had grown up feeling that there was no need for air conditioning – “that it was for the weak, for those who couldn’t get around.”
But last year, after he and his wife saw forest fire smoke cling to an air filter in their home, he and his wife decided that a new era would require rethinking how to stay healthy. He said it seemed inevitable, given the changing climate and projections for the future, that air conditioning would almost become a requirement for living in Seattle.
“We can’t just pretend this isn’t happening anymore,” said Mr. Lockwood.