In a region known for its kindly climate, residents are being forced to adapt to unfamiliar extremes
Last week was a rough one for Lila van der Woof, 5, of Eugene, Oregon.
After spending just twenty minutes outside last Wednesday—and in a wading pool, of all places—she started acting lethargic and disoriented. Normally a playful and affectionate English Sheepdog, Lila refused to eat, and seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the wall. The next day at the vet, she was diagnosed with heat stroke, one of the furrier victims of the severe heat wave that just swept through the Pacific Northwest.
Lila is much better now: Her owner, Dylan Anslow, shaved her shaggy coat and installed a window air-conditioner unit next to her bed—the first in the house.
Climate change has unleashed new extremes in the Pacific Northwest, home of mild winters and Goldilocks summers. Following a winter of record snowfalls in Portland, the city just faced three consecutive days of record breaking heat, with temperatures climbing as high 105 degrees. Seattle might have hit triple digits as well—for only the third time in 123 years of recorded temperatures—if not for the high concentration of particulate matter in the air from nearby wildfires.
As the New York Times reported last week, Portlanders are being forced to adapt and join the rest of the nation in embracing air conditioning. In Portland, 30 percent of homes have no AC at all; in Seattle, a full 66 percent lack artificial cooling. Access to AC is an equity issue, as the homes without it tend to be lower-income rental apartments.
To survive the heat wave, Oregonians turned to strategies familiar to cities in other, hotter climes, such as setting up “cooling centers” in fire stations, homeless shelters, and senior centers. At Lewis and Clark College in Portland, students gathered in an air-conditioned space in the basement of the chapel, since most dorms lack air conditioning. Perhaps in the future these ad-hoc gatherings will be so widespread as to have a zeitgeisty nickname. “Share-conditioning” has a nice ring to it.
While many Pacific Northwest residents have been forced to come up with makeshift solutions to the heat, many others in this environmentally conscious region have conceded defeat. Anslow describes the scene at a local hardware store, where a pallet of window units was nearly sold out before it could be unpacked and shelved. “Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to this week has an in-window unit,” she said.
The adoption of AC in the PNW isn’t just driven by rising summer temperatures. In recent years, the area has boomed with new residents that have moved here from other regions and can hardly imagine life without air conditioning. Additionally, the tall, glassy condos now rising like trees in places like Seattle tend to be built with central air. Overall, 25 percent of units built in Seattle in the 2010s have AC, compared to 16 percent of units built in the 2000s and just 4 percent of units built in the 1990s.
The next question is whether the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the last major bastion of open-window summer living in the lower 48, will see long-term cultural changes set in as AC grips its cities. “I tend to think not,” says Joe Cortright, director of City Observatory, a Portland-based think tank. Perhaps window units will be turned on slightly more often as triple digit days become more common, but for the most part, the PNW remains “mild, moist and pleasant.” The real question for Cortright is whether extreme heat spells serve as a wake-up call. “Hopefully it prompts us to choose urban lifestyles where we don’t have to depend so much on driving.”