Under the heat dome

Death and destruction on the frontline of climate change

I’m writing this dispatch (as I so often do) from the couch, but this time I’m sitting in the dark, with the shades drawn against the heat, and a fan pointed directly at me. Our cat has taken shelter deep under the bed, between storage containers. Temperature highs in New York this week have been in the mid-90s, with a heat index up to 104 degrees. I may have bruised my hip Monday throwing my body against our front door, which has swollen in the humidity, making it stick in its frame.

And to think we got off easy.

An enormous heat dome is baking the Pacific Northwest. It’s been so hot in Washington State that roads are starting to crack and buckle.

First public pools in Portland reached max capacity and had to turn people away; then they had to close after multiple lifeguards were stricken by heat-related illnesses. The Weather Channel is keeping tabs on the dozens of cities and towns that have tied or set all-time temperature records this week. (The city of Salem, Oregon, topped out at 117 degrees on Monday, tying the hottest-ever temperature recorded in Las Vegas, Nevada.) Bend and other cities in Oregon and southwest Washington have banned fireworks ahead of the holiday weekend for fear of sparking wildfires.

The majority of houses and apartments in Seattle are without air conditioning, making the situation particularly miserable and dangerous for many residents. More than 800 people in Oregon and Washington have had to go to the hospital for heat-related illnesses. Heat might have been a factor in the death of two unhoused men in Bend; heat might also have been the cause of dozens of deaths in the Vancouver metro area.

People without window shades (remember, Seattle is famously rainy and cloudy!) are getting creative about blocking out the sun:

Oh, and a town in California is completely without running water amidst all this.

Incredibly, life is continuing apace in other ways: Farmworkers (ages 12 - 70+) are still picking cherries and blueberries, while enduring brutal heat without shade, Lauren Kaori Gurley reports for Vice. Don’t forget to bring your own (BYO) water to work!!! Meanwhile, Amazon handed out “ice scarves” to employees working at a Seattle facility with broken fans:

On the other side of the country, some are wondering if climate change in the form of sea level rise could have been a factor in the collapse of a condominium in Surfside, Florida, which likely claimed 161 lives. (There are only 12 confirmed dead, and even though it’s still a search and rescue operation, nobody has been rescued alive since Thursday, the day the building collapsed.) While current speculation is mostly focused on reported design flaws and structural problems in the building, John Morales, an atmospheric & environmental scientist and a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, pointed out that the building was sinking at a rate of nearly 2 millimeters per year in the 1990s, which might have continued up to the present, exacerbating the aforementioned design/structural flaws. But even if sea level rise wasn’t the cause of this disaster—is it so hard to imagine it won’t be a factor in the next? It’s as good a time as ever to reread Sarah Miller on selling Miami.

MEANWHILE, I wanted to see what outdoor publications are saying about the heat wave. Apparently Outside thought Monday was a good day to publish “An Ode to the New Ford Bronco,” which does not appear to be spon-con (and was still the most recent story on the feed Tuesday afternoon).

The Bronco is going to change the way drivers think about 4x4s, and probably enable a whole lot of people to get further into the outdoors than they’d ever considered possible.

It doesn’t matter if you’re someone who commutes in a city, whether you’re a new driver, or if you have never been off-road before. You will be able to fit a Bronco into your life, and you will be able to safely use it on-road or off with total confidence.

The new Bronco is going to open America’s incredible system of public lands to more people than ever before, and make using those lands something anyone will be able to feel confident doing.

Unless Ford is the only financial backer keeping the magazine afloat, I genuinely can’t see a reason to publish this obsequious pro-car drivel; voluntarily publishing free advertising for them is indefensible. Need I remind you that Ford was one of (at least) two carmakers that knew car emissions caused climate change 50 years ago, and then proceeded to actively stymie emissions reductions and otherwise stall action on climate change? Publishing this kind of crap also undermines work by other Outside writers, like Krista Langlois, who recently wrote about how to talk to your kids about climate change.

I also visited the Backpacker home page (they’re owned by the same umbrella company now, but seem to still have separate editorial operations? IDK). At least they bumped a 2015 story about what hiking in the Namibian desert in summer taught the writer about surviving heat. Also, have you heard that more than 487 miles of the 800-mile Arizona Trail are closed due to active wildfires or wildfire risk? Also, the July/August print issue that just landed in my mailbox, which I have not yet had time to read, leads with the cover: “How To Hike In the Era of Climate Change.” So, that’s something!

Over at Adventure Journal, I found a great story by Shawnte Salabert on why you should invest in a sun shirt to protect yourself from harmful UV rays—but I had to go to page 2 to find it. (I personally just invested in some reef-friendly sunscreen but the sticker shock on the 6oz bottle is enough to make me want to rely on fabric protection as well. Also, buyer-beware: there’s a lot of misleading labels out there.) And on page 1 there was an interesting story about trout fishing in the Colorado River Basin during periods of drought.

There are glaring omissions. Fortunately, some local publications were on the heat/outdoor adventure beat, warning would-be hikers of the risks of outdoor activity and reminding them to hydrate and replenish electrolytes and giving tips on how to hike through burned forests or those at risk of wildfires.

The heat wave isn’t limited to lower elevations either; a balmy 63 degrees was the forecast for the top of Mt. Rainier this weekend. The elevated temperatures could increase the likelihood of falling ice, new and expanding crevasses, and other dangers to hikers and climbers.

While all eyes are on the Pacific Northwest, people are also still dying of heat-related illnesses in the Grand Canyon, and it was hot enough in Saguaro National Park for rangers to bake cookies in their cars. (Up to 53 people might have died as a result of a heat wave in Arizona earlier this month.) There are already two places on earth that have occasionally—if briefly—surpassed the wet bulb threshold, or the point at which the combined heat and humidity is so great the human body can no longer cool itself.

This is as good a time as any to also bump the 2019 Outside story about what it’s like to die from heat stroke; it’s a grim and necessary reread.

The sad reality is that “How to Hike In the Era of Climate Change” should be the theme of almost every Backpacker issue, every Outside issue, of virtually every story we tell about the outdoors (substitute “hike” with “climb,” “swim,” “canoe,” “bike,” etc. as needed). I certainly want to be thinking about it every time I send out a pitch. I know I’m not perfect; just this week I got hate mail telling me I was polluting lakes with sunscreen and feces because I wrote a story about lake bagging. How to responsibly write about the outdoors without, you know, contributing to trail overcrowding and overuse—which I was also accused of after writing about the Northville-Placid Trail—is a perennial concern of mine, and surely others, and there’s always room for improvement. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but this week has been a good reminder of what matters. (And, oh my god, it’s not a fucking Ford Bronco.)