Just weeks into the summer season, extreme heat is suffocating parts of the Mountain West including areas already grappling with historic drought conditions.
Blistering temperatures from Nevada and Utah to Idaho and some parts of Colorado come on the heels of an analysis by the World Weather Attribution linking the recent heatwave in the Pacific Northwest to human-caused climate change.
“An event such as the Pacific Northwest 2021 heatwave is still rare or extremely rare in today’s climate, yet would be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change,” the study reads. “As warming continues, it will become a lot less rare.”
Bryan Shuman, a climate scientist at University of Wyoming, was not surprised by the analysis.
“There's no doubt that as the atmosphere and the ocean absorb more heat, we're going to have more warm days,” he said. “The Earth is currently absorbing far more heat from the sun than it releases back to space. And so we feel that — it's like putting on a warm coat around the whole planet.”
Across the Mountain West, Shuman says this summer's heat is “really unusual, in terms of how incredibly hot it's been, but it’s also really surprising, I think to many people, how early the heat has come.”
The reality now is that extreme warm events, like heatwaves, are becoming the norm. “In fact, we basically have lost our extreme cold events. What would seem like cold events now are actually just normal events — middle of the road, cool weather,” Shuman said.
That is a concern in the Mountain West for multiple reasons. For one, many homes, especially those of low-income residents, lack air conditioning.
“Heatwaves are fundamentally the deadliest type of extreme weather that's out there,” Shuman said. “You think about storms like hurricanes killing people, but many, many more people die around the world during extreme hot weather.”
Roughly 800 people died during the recent heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, though that number is likely to rise as officials continue to tally reports.
Warmer temps in the Mountain West also spell trouble for the region’s flora and fauna that have long relied on cooler climates for their health and survival. In Colorado and Wyoming, millions of acres of forests have been killed by insect outbreaks, “which happened in part because we don't have the really extreme cold winters anymore that normally would have killed those insects,” Shuman said.
Easing the impacts of the climate crisis hinges on small behavioral shifts, such as flying less, Shuman said. “That's probably the biggest single way I personally add carbon in the atmosphere and help make things warm.”
But he was careful to point out that large systematic shifts are significantly more impactful. To spur that kind of change, he suggests tapping into economic forces, such as enacting a tax on carbon emissions.
“I recognize that my personal actions have consequences,” Shuman said. “But I also know that my own individual actions are not going to be the solution. We have to take large or systematic approaches. We have to change the way we do things as a whole society.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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