North America heatwave: 34 people dead in Vancouver after ‘heat dome’ sends temperatures to 47C

More than 34 people in the Canadian city of Vancouver died suddenly yesterday as a “once in 10,000-year” heatwave turned the traditionally drizzly Pacfic Northwest into a deadly furnace.

A heat warning was issued after temperatures reached a record-breaking 47 degree celsius in the city, leaving many vulnerable residents struggling in the sweltering heat. 

"Although still under investigation, heat is believed to be a contributing factor in the majority of the deaths," Royal Canadian Mounted Police Corporal Michael Kalanj said in a statement, adding that most of the deceased were elderly.

Residents of areas across northwest Canada and America threw themselves into fountains, dived off cliffs into lakes, and dunked their pets in cold baths. Vancouverites were frying eggs on pans placed on their terraces.

Power cables and freeways buckled, Covid-19 testing centres and schools had to be shut down, and people crammed into "cooling centres" set up in libraries, cinemas, and at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.

Beachgoers cool off in Alouette Lake in British Columbia, Canada

Credit: Jennifer Gauthier/REUTERS

In an area where most people do not have air conditioning, some slept in their vehicles in underground car parks, and improvised cooling devices using electric fans and bags of ice.

In the Pacific Northwest, June is often called "Juneuary" due to the cool rain and average high temperatures of around 70F (21.1 C).

But the blistering heat wave brought record highs including 108F (42C) in Seattle, 116F (46.6 C) in Portland, Oregon, and 117F (47.2C) in Salem, Oregon.

Canada broke its record temperature as thermometers in Lytton, British Columbia reached 118F (47.9C).

Cliff divers line up along the Clackamas River at High Rocks Park at on June 27, 2021 in Portland, Oregon

Credit: Getty

The unprecedented temperatures were triggered by a "heat dome," a term used to describe a mountain of very warm air.

It is a phenomenon caused when a high pressure system becomes firmly established above a certain area.

Atmospheric pressure triggers a tall column of air that compresses and warms as it sinks.

The sinking air acts as a cap – or a "heat dome" – and traps the heat which has already been absorbed by the land.

How a heat dome is formed

It has been compared to putting a lid on a saucepan.

The region, which is home to millions of people, was hotter than the equator and eclipsed temperatures in Cairo and New Delhi.

Travel writer Geraldine DeRuiter in Portland, Oregon said it felt "apocalyptic".

"The air feels like it is on fire," she wrote. "The sensation you get when you open up an oven and it blasts heat on you."

Much of daily life shut down as shops quickly sold out of air conditioning units, and bars and restaurants closed.
 

A man cools off in the Salmon Springs Fountain on Sunday in Portland, Oregon

Credit: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Stanlie James, who had just moved to Seattle from Arizona, said: "Part of the reason I moved here was to have relief from Arizona heat. And I seem to have brought it with me."

Another sweltering Seattle resident said: "Normally maybe 60, 70 degrees is a great day. This is ridiculous. I feel like I’m in the desert or something."

As emergency trucks poured water on bridges to stop them buckling, Washington state’s governor Jay Inslee said: "We are not meant for this."

Pacific Northwesterners were indignant at accusations on social media that they were "weather wimps".

Justin Shaw, a forecaster at the Seattle Weather Blog, said: "Let them [critics] try to sleep in a 92 degree bedroom. Then they can come talk to us and tell us how they feel."

Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, eased coronavirus restrictions so people could gather for safety in air-conditioned shopping centres and cinemas, and at outdoor swimming pools. There was room for 1,000 people at the Amazon "cooling centre".

PORTLAND, OR – JUNE 27: Kids play in the Salmon Springs Fountain on June 27, 2021 in Portland, Oregon

Credit: Getty

Widespread power blackouts were reported as people used electric fans that strained the power grid.

In Washington state workers desperately tried to save cherry crops from the heat, picking them during the night.

Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli said: "Statistically speaking, there is a one in 10,000 chance of experiencing this.

"If you could possibly live in that spot for 10,000 years, you’d likely only experience that kind of heat dome once, if ever."

A woman and her cat rest inside a tent at the Oregon Convention Center cooling station

Credit: AFP

Zeke Hausfather, a scientist at the climate-data charity Berkeley Earth, said the Pacific Northwest has warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past half-century, meaning the heat wave was worse.

He said: "In a world without climate change, this still would have been a really extreme heat wave. This is worse than the same event would have been 50 years ago, and notably so."

David Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said: “I like to break a record, but this is like shattering and pulverising them.

"We are the second coldest country in the world and the snowiest. Dubai would be cooler than what we’re seeing now."
 

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