PORTLAND, Oregon. – The US Pacific Northwest was in the throes of a record-breaking heat wave last summer when a woman in her 60s was rushed to the emergency room with symptoms of life-threatening heatstroke.
Desperate to cool her down, Dr. Alexander St. John grabbed a body bag, filled it with ice from the hospital kitchen, and slipped the woman inside. Within minutes, her body temperature dropped and her symptoms improved.
“I’ve never had to do this before. It was surreal,” St. John said. “Twenty years ago it seemed like we were talking about climate change as something that would happen over generations to come – and all of a sudden it seems to be accelerating to the point where we are all experiencing it in real time. .”
The technique was used to save several other patients at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle during the five-day heat wave last June that saw temperatures soar to 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) in some places and killed about 600 or more across Oregon, Washington and western Canada.
According to a United Nations report released this week, the sweltering stretch through the normally cool region offers a glimpse of the types of extreme weather events that will accelerate across North America 30 years from now without a coordinated effort to slow the change. climatic. Even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, people in the United States, Mexico and Canada will be increasingly exposed to catastrophic weather events.
The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explains how worsening global warming will endanger people’s health, lead to food insecurity, spur economic dislocation and trigger migration from increasingly more uninhabitable. According to the report, low-income and minority populations will be hardest hit, exacerbating existing inequalities.
In the West, the report predicts an intensification of drought, extreme heat and wildfires. The Gulf Coast is expected to experience more destructive hurricanes and rising sea levels. In the Midwest and Northeast, heavier rains are expected to cause more flooding and crop damage.
In the summer of 2019, flooding in the Midwestern and Southern United States disrupted barge traffic on the Mississippi River and damaged cropland in Ohio and Indiana. A different downpour and flood from months earlier crippled Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
The economic impacts will be profound. Warming water and ocean acidification will disrupt commercial fishing, extreme heat will lead to lower yields of key crops such as corn and soybeans and drought will lead to livestock losses as animals have less land for food, according to the report.
Since 1980, there have been 35 non-hurricane floods in the United States that have caused more than $1 billion in damage and more than half of them since 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We are exposed to incalculable harm,” said Kathleen Miller, lead author of the report’s North America chapter who studies the economic impacts of climate change at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“It’s time to step up and start thinking about our priorities and how we can deal with these growing threats,” she said.
The report still holds out hope that people will be able to slow climate change – or at least adapt to mitigate its effects. Prioritizing the most vulnerable in society will have the greatest impact on climate resilience, he said.
The kind of adjustments cited in the report are already underway in the Pacific Northwest, which was not built for hot weather. In Seattle, for example, 44% of homes are air-conditioned.
After last summer’s deadly heat wave, Portland officials are considering alarm systems in public housing that would alert building managers when temperatures exceed 100 degrees. City officials also approved a plan to distribute 15,000 heat pumps, which provide an energy-efficient way to cool spaces. Oregon lawmakers are also considering $15 million in funding to boost the distribution of air purifiers, air conditioners and heat pumps.
Longer-term discussions in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere include painting roofs white and using lighter-colored pavement to repel sunlight, planting more trees in urban centers and the creation of neighborhood cooling centers that could also be social venues.
The measures will be essential for the groups hardest hit by last summer’s deadly heat wave – the elderly living alone, the disabled and the poor.
None of those who died in Portland had central air conditioning, more than half lived in apartments and 10% lived in mobile homes, according to data released by Multnomah County. The city’s light rail transit has ceased to operate, making it difficult for low-income residents to access the hastily installed cooling centers at public libraries.
An analysis of data from 1,000 residences found the average temperature in the wealthiest homes was 75 degrees, compared to 125 degrees in the poorest homes, said Vivek Shandas, a climate professor at Portland State University.
It shows how those with resources can “insulate themselves further and protect themselves”, he said.
Renee Salas, an emergency physician and member of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University, noted that the health risks are not just from the heat, but also from worsening fires forests that are sending plumes of smoke thousands of miles across North America and rising temperatures that could promote the spread of mosquito and tick-borne diseases like dengue fever, West Nile and Lyme disease .
Adapting will mean considering climate change as a secondary diagnosis for many patients and treating it accordingly, Salas said. In the future, doctors could write prescriptions for air purifiers or heat pumps like they do for drugs and a national health records system could help maintain consistent medical treatment for patients who become climate refugees.
“There are so many things we can do to optimally identify who is most at risk and then help protect them,” she said. “The time is right to do it now, when we are already starting to see the impact.”
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed from Kensington, Maryland.
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