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Can't Beat the Heat: Record-Breaking Temperatures Kill Wildlife, Marine, and Human Life

Updated: Jan 31

As a key ingredient of pool parties, beach days, and tropical vacations, warm summer weather is eagerly awaited year-round. However, as average global temperatures rise with the onslaught of climate change, this summer’s extreme heat is cause for concern, not celebration.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded. In a world where natural disasters fueled by climate change are becoming the norm, this is distressing news. Extreme heat waves pose multiple threats: Not only do they endanger people and animals by causing them to overheat, but they also worsen droughts and dry out foliage, creating tinder for increasingly destructive wildfires. The extreme heat has primarily impacted the United States, Canada, Europe, and Northern Africa, including a deadly period of high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.

In previous years, the Pacific Northwest region, which is home to the Pacific temperate rainforests, rarely saw summer temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Oregon and Washington are known for their cold, wet winters and mild summers, so it came as a shock when the predicted forecasts for mid-July topped 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Seattle reached 108 degrees in July, breaking the previous record by five degrees. Portland, Oregon fared even worse, with a high of 116 degrees, a whopping eight degrees hotter than ever before. This steep increase in temperature spells danger for the region—temperature records are usually broken by a percentage of a degree, not five or eight degrees at a time.

The weather event behind the extreme heat is called a heat dome, a high-pressure phenomenon that traps heat above a region. Heat domes are fairly common in the summer, and their formation is linked to tropical cyclones in the Pacific Ocean. Changes in the atmosphere as a result of global warming influence cyclone formations, and are thus connected to the development of heat domes. As extreme heat events last longer, grow hotter, and become more frequent due to climate change, both human health and natural habitats are put in jeopardy.

In addition to hundreds of human deaths linked to the heat waves, marine creatures are among those most severely affected by extreme heat. It is estimated that 1 billion marine creatures in the Pacific Northwest perished from the heat, with many marine organisms being cooked alive in their shells. Birds are also at risk: Conservationists observed countless baby birds fleeing their nests in search of cooler temperatures. As extreme heat accompanied by droughts and wildfires threaten biodiversity, scientists are reevaluating projected timelines for the rising temperatures, as many estimated this summer’s record-breaking heat to happen decades in the future, not in 2021.

Marine biologist Christopher Harley from the University of British Columbia says he has found hundreds of thousands of dead mussels on one beach alone. Christopher Harley/University of British Columbia

Accelerated by climate change, summer temperatures across the globe are shattering records. The heat waves’ catastrophic toll on plants, animals, and people, coupled with the worsening of related natural disasters such as droughts and wildfires, have overshadowed many communities’ hopes for summer fun. As autumn, California’s annual wildfire season, begins, the smoke that will soon fill the air is yet another sign of the greatest environmental challenge today: creating equitable climate solutions for all.

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