Science & Environment

Oregon’s built environment faces new tests with extreme heat

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. July 1, 2021 4:35 p.m.

Excessive heat stresses human health, which in turn stretches the limits of our built environment and vice versa.

Salem Fire Department paramedics and employees of Falck Northwest ambulances respond to a heat exposure call during a heat wave, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Salem, Ore.

Salem Fire Department paramedics and employees of Falck Northwest ambulances respond to a heat exposure call during a heat wave, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Salem, Ore.

Nathan Howard / AP

A heat dome this weekend brought temperatures in the 110s to Oregon cities unaccustomed to seeing triple-digits at all.


While heat waves are common even in the mild-weathered Pacific Northwest, the extreme nature of this latest swelter has some questioning whether the region is built to withstand the warmer climate in its future.

“The Pacific Northwest was not designed for these temperatures,” said Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

The record highs reached this weekend are likely anomalies, but they also foreshadow the conflicting challenges Oregon faces as it gets hotter.

The latest Oregon climate assessment, which OCCRI released earlier this year, shows the state is experiencing more hot days every summer on average.

For example, Southern Oregon cities like Medford have about 21 more days a year exceeding 90 degrees than in 1940. Portland and Pendleton each see about eight more of those hot days annually.

“The best science available suggests that, no, it is not going to be 110 degrees in Portland every day by 2050,” Fleishman said. “However, it will on average be warmer than it’s been over the past several decades on a daily basis.”

Related: Climate change in Oregon by the numbers, from 0.1 to 200

As the state warms up, so too do the stressors on people, which in turn stretch the limits of our built environment and vice versa.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Oregon’s slow adoption of air-conditioning. Just over half of homes in the state have A/C, according to the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, mostly because they haven’t needed it before. (The state climate assessment also points out that more air-conditioning is a boon to public health, but also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, fueling the global warming that’s requiring more of it in the first place.)

The burning of fossil fuels like coal, gasoline, and natural gas, and the resulting climate change have set the conditions for longer, hotter heat waves in Oregon. Cooling systems are becoming more vital for people who live here. Heat-related medical emergencies and deaths spiked this weekend alongside temperatures, underscoring the need to keep people cool and comfortable at home.


Statewide the heat-related death toll exceeded 60 people by Wednesday. Many of those who died were alone, without air-conditioning or fans.

Related: Oregon health officials blame more than 60 deaths on heat wave

More Oregonians have opted for cooling systems in their homes in recent years, and that increases the demand for electricity, which is in limited supply.

A heat wave last August sent daily electricity prices in Oregon up to eight times the 2020 average, according to the climate assessment. That was the same heat wave that led to rolling blackouts in California due to excess electricity demand.

Pacific Power, which is one of the region’s largest utilities, set a new demand record Monday, but did not see any disruptions as a result. Spokesperson Drew Hanson said that’s partly because the utility is able to pull from power sources spread across 10 states.

“When we are anticipating high heat or a high-demand event, we have plenty of places that we can look to bring more energy in so it’s available when and where it’s needed,” Hanson said.

Extreme heat also affects the physical infrastructure used to deliver electricity.

Portland General Electric spokesperson John Farmer said in an email that one of the issues during this heat wave was that overnight temperatures didn’t dip as much as usual, which meant electrical equipment couldn’t cool down as much from use during the day.

“As a result, they begin the next day at an already elevated temperature as customer demand increases,” Farmer said.

Thousands of people across the state endured power outages over the weekend due to equipment failures. Some 30,000 Pacific Power customers were without power for two hours Monday after a transformer bushing failed.

Reports have also surfaced around the region of transportation infrastructure suffering under the hot sun. A slab street in Portland buckled, as did a highway in Washington. Heat melted cables powering the Portland Streetcar.

Kacey Davey, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said the agency did not receive reports of damage to roadways it manages.

By Tuesday the worst of the hot weather had left the western part of the state, but excessive heat warnings remain in place east of the Cascades through Sunday.