Burned Plants and Buckled Asphalt (When Climate Change Comes Calling)

I’ve spent my entire life in the pacific northwest, and I’ve always felt pretty damn lucky to call this beautiful place home. Snow covered peaks, lush forests, beautiful coastline, and a few volcanoes to keep things spicy. It’s a beautiful place to live, assuming you can handle cloudy days and 7 feet of annual rainfall.

But it seems that every year things are getting a little bit stranger. The term ‘unprecedented’ has been uttered by my local weatherman more times than I care to count. In February we had a surprise snowstorm that brought feet of the fluffy white stuff down to the valley floor. I can probably found on one hand the number of times that has happened in my 32 years here. My dad, who lives up in the mountains wound up with drifts against the side of his house that were taller than him. Workplaces closed early, Judges cancelled their own hearings when the county refused to shut the courthouse down because they were worried about their staff making it home that night. Anyone in the midwest might be rolling their eyes (as many transplants who live here do when the flurries start coming). But the key takeaway here is that this type of weather isn’t common for us. We don’t drive well in the snow because we don’t have to. Our road crews can’t keep up with the maintenance because it’s not something they generally need to practice on a large scale. Which means when one of these storms hit, things get complicated.

Fast forward four months and we are sitting in the middle of a heat wave that smashed records held for 80 years. Last week we slammed through the record high temperatures all across this swath of land. Broke it on Saturday, then again on Sunday, and once more on Monday for good measure. The previous record for my little home was previously at 106°F, and on Monday we climbed up to about 116°F- which still wasn’t even the hottest in the area. Some areas were spiking a good 5-10 degrees above that.

Now, the thing to remember: different areas are built for different climates. Not every road is created the same because what Texas needs to withstand the heat isn’t the same thing that the Midwest needs to survive the cold, or what the pacific northwest needs to muddle through the rain. The composition of the roads themselves are created with different variables in mind. The infrastructure of the pacific northwest was not built for what it endured last week.

The sidings on homes and apartments began to warp. Asphalt buckled. Most homes in this area don’t come equipped with AC units because they’re usually not needed, so cooling centers were opened. Those who were lucky enough to have a new home with AC had to deal with them bogging down and failing, unaccustomed to the amount of strain. Some areas lost power, though luckily it was only a small percentage. Plants were scorched, shriveled and died. Some areas were put on water alerts and asked to only use it when deemed absolutely necessary until the supply could be replenished. The Department of Transportation issued alerts for people to remain home if possible because the roads were suddenly unsafe. Days later Oregon announced that 76 people in their state had heat-related deaths attributed to the heat wave. Rolling into the Fourth of July weekend, fireworks have been banned due to unsafe fire conditions.

The fact that these events are happening is really just par for the course when dealing with mother nature. The true issue here is the frequency with which they are happening. This by itself is alarming. And it doesn’t matter how many times people say ‘global warming is just a theory’- that’s all well and good, but if you want to get technical, gravity is also ‘just a theory.’ There is a lot of research and peer review that goes into the making of new theories, and it’s probably about time we start listening to the experts. Otherwise, these one-off events will become the norm. This beautiful place I call home will become a scorched little crisp of land.

According to Climate.gov, in 2019 alone the the US experienced 14 separate weather disasters that cost roughly a billion dollars each. Every winter we set new global records for ‘the hottest winter on record.’ The summer of 2020 brought droughts to the west coast that led to mass fires and hazardous air quality that hurt the lungs and made driving conditions treacherous because of poor visibility. Sadly, this is becoming the norm in my part of the world. In 2017 a wildfire jumped the gorge and threatened my childhood home. I had to drive out to my dad’s house to help him pack up the things we wanted to save, and beg him to evacuate along with his neighbors. Ash rained down from the sky. You went into a store and came out with a layer on your car. We aren’t alone in this either.

In February 2021 winter storm resulted in blackouts for over 9.9 million people in the US and Mexico, to include the Texas power crisis. The storm spurred several tornadoes. The death toll rose to at least 176. That same storm set records for snowfall in many other areas, to include larger cities like Seattle, WA, Portland, OR, and Boise, ID. Blizzard warnings were issues in Albuquerque, NM. At the end of March torrential spring rains caused flash flooding in Nashville. A study that month also concluded that the intensity of tropical cyclones were increasing, likely caused by climate change. In May Louisiana was hit with flash floods after a foot of rainfall fell within 24 hours; this is while the area was still recovering from two hurricanes that hit last summer. These are just a few US highlights from the past 6 months.

So the real question we must start asking ourselves isn’t “What will happen next,” because rest assured, it will be more of the same. More summers set ablaze, more roads cracking from the heat, more winters blanketed in ice and rolling blackouts. None of this will get better on it’s own. The real question is “What do we do next?” When it seems that the powers-that-be get hopelessly bogged down in the politics of it, what do we do? What can we change when the problem feels far too large for us? It starts right here, will small choices and little steps. It gains momentum, it forces itself into the light. Because if this world burns, we burn with it.