How heat waves warp ecosystems

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS

After the Northwest ‘heat dome’ this summer, scientists look for signs of ecological ruin — or resilience.

During this summer’s stifling heat wave, Robin Fales patrolled the same sweep of shore on Washington’s San Juan Island every day at low tide. The stench of rotting sea life grew as temperatures edged toward triple digits — roughly 30 degrees above average — and Fales watched the beds of kelp she studies wilt and fade. “They were bleaching more than I had ever seen,” recalled Fales, a Ph.D. candidate and marine ecologist at the University of Washington. She didn’t know if they would make it.

Never in recorded history had the Pacific Northwest experienced anything like the “heat dome” that clamped down on the region in late June 2021. Temperatures reached a withering 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon, and 121 degrees in Lytton, British Columbia — the highest ever recorded north of the 45th parallel.

Scientists said the event would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change. It killed hundreds of people, damaged roads and power lines, and devastated crops. It also caused widespread ecological fallout, the full extent of which scientists have yet to grasp.

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In late June, 2021, temperatures soared across the Pacific Northwest, causing widespread damage and ecological disruption. (Credit: NASA)