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80% of Americans Suffered Through Extreme Heat Last Year

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Katherine Morgan drinks water in front of a box fan while trying to stay cool in her downtown apartment without air conditioning on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Portland, Oregon.

Katherine Morgan drinks water in front of a box fan while trying to stay cool in her downtown apartment without air conditioning on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Portland, Oregon.
Photo: Nathan Howard (AP)

For most people living in the U.S., last summer felt unbearably hot in a new way—and new statistics on last year’s heat waves back that up. According to federal data analyzed by the Washington Post this week, 80% of Americans live in a county that had at least one day of “abnormally high” temperatures in 2021.

The statistic is pretty shocking—but it’s also right in line with what the climate crisis has in store for us. And when you look back at 2021, it’s clear that endless searing heat seemed to hit everywhere, including places not accustomed to such extreme temperatures.

The Pacific Northwest bore the deadliest brunt of the heat. The region saw several record-breaking heatwaves, including one in late June and early July that killed hundreds of people in the region (and literally melted infrastructure). Portland, Oregon, saw at least six days last summer where temperatures reached or exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius); in a normal year, the city sees just one.

But other places weren’t safe either. At one point, in late July, 81 million Americans were under heat watches or warnings, as searing temperatures hit basically every part of the country except New England and the Great Lakes. In New York, city dwellers were told in June to conserve their power as the region recorded 100-degree-Fahrenheit (38-degree-Celsius) heat; California’s Death Valley in July recorded a temperature of ​​130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius), a literal planetary record.

Last year, the heat damaged wheat crops in the Midwest, deprived iconic California glaciers of the snow they need to survive, cooked mussels alive in the Pacific Northwest, caused an “ice quake” in Alaska, helped worsen the mounting water crisis in the West, and made strange lesions and fungus grow on salmon in Washington. The heat across the U.S. in 2021 broke a longstanding record for hottest summer, which was set in 1936, at the height of the Dust Bowl.

Even the end of summer and arrival of “cooler” seasons didn’t bring relief: December 2021 was the hottest December on record in the U.S. by a wide margin. Kodiak City, Alaska, of all places, saw temperatures reach 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius) in late December—a temperature that absolutely obliterated the previous December record by 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11.1 degrees Fahrenheit), and also blew past records set in November, January, February, and March.

This is a long list to underscore just how extensive, and long-lasting the heat was last year. Burning fossil fuels has turned up the background temperatures, ensuring that when weather patterns setup for a heat wave, they have an extra boost that can be dangerous and even deadly. Research has shown that poorer neighborhoods can be up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) hotter than wealthier ones. The risk that poses played out in real life this summer; the people who suffered and died in the Pacific Northwest heatwaves were overwhelmingly the houseless, the elderly, and those without access to steady air conditioning.

That points to the urgent need for adapting to heat even as we work to cut emissions. Because if you think the past year was bad, things will only get worse if fossil fuel use isn’t wound down.

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