Much of the country is used to occasional 100-degree days. Seattle, which has had just three in the past 123 years, is not.
So unaccustomed is Seattle to scorching heat that, in 2015, only one-third of the housing units in its metropolitan area had air-conditioning.
That’s going to make this week dangerous.
The National Weather Service is predicting “widespread record highs” as a heat wave engulfs the Pacific Northwest. An excessive heat warning is in effect from 2 p.m. on Tuesday through 9 p.m. on Friday. Seattleites can expect temperatures in the mid-80s to lower 90s on Tuesday. Wednesday will be in the 90s. And that three-digit barrier: Thursday may break it, with highs potentially “near 104.”
In Portland, Ore., the second-largest city in the region, highs of 104 to 107 are expected on Wednesday and Thursday, threatening the record of 107 degrees set in 1965. Friday, too, is expected to reach 100, which would make this week only the seventh time since 1940 that Portland has had three consecutive days of triple-digit heat. And with a forecast of 99 degrees on Tuesday, the city is flirting with a four-day streak, something that has happened only twice since 1940.
Farther south, Medford, Ore., with a high of 113 forecast for Wednesday, is likely to break 100 degrees for nine consecutive days. Sacramento can expect highs of 100 to 104 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; so can Reno, Nev. And pity the Washingtonians east of the Cascade Range, away from the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean: Highs in Pasco and Yakima (107 on Friday) aren’t predicted to fall below 100 until Aug. 11.
Extreme heat has become more common worldwide because of climate change. More than 1,000 people died in Karachi, Pakistan, when a searing heat wave hit during Ramadan in 2015. This May, the remote town of Turbat, Pakistan, recorded a high of 129.2 degrees: possibly a record for Asia.
Stateside, in June it reached 117 degrees in Las Vegas, 119 in Phoenix and a suffocating 122 in Palm Springs, Calif. It was so hot in Arizona that some planes couldn’t fly.
But the Southwest has something Seattle doesn’t: More than 98 percent of housing units in Phoenix have air-conditioning, according to the most recent American Housing Survey, conducted in 2015.
“This is definitely not a town that was built on air-conditioning, and usually we don’t need it,” Dana Felton, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle, told The Seattle Times. “We have only hit 100 or more on three days in 120 years of keeping records, and on average we have only three 90-degree-plus days a year.”
Portland is in better shape in that regard — 70 percent of its housing units have air-conditioning — but that still leaves 271,300 units without.
Officials are issuing standard warnings about how to stay healthy: Drink plenty of water, and do it regularly; don’t wait until you feel thirsty. Stay out of the sun as much as possible. Never leave children or pets in a vehicle unattended; cars can reach deadly temperatures in mere minutes.
And be aware of the signs of heat-related illnesses. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include muscle cramps, headaches, nausea and dizziness. If you experience these, you should stop physical activity, move to a cooler place and drink water. If it’s not treated, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, a life-threatening emergency. Symptoms include a body temperature of 104 degrees or higher, rapid breathing, a racing pulse, confusion, slurred speech and seizures.