A 1,000-Year Heatwave and the Dawn of the Era of Unthinkable Events

The heatwave that tore through the Pacific Northwest in June 2021 was more than a rare event – it was a previously unthinkable event. Opening like the first act of a disaster movie, scientists framed the forecasts with such language as “This is so nuts I can’t believe it” and “Simply outrageous – stretching the limits of what our typically mild, marine-influenced climate is capable of churning out.“ The pervasive early sense was that the forecast models might be – had to be – wrong: “Experience tells us that those numbers shouldn’t be reachable,” chronicled one forecaster, while another noted “Put that in the category of things I didn’t think were possible.” When a weather balloon taking atmospheric temperature readings got a taste of what was about to descend on the city, the vibe of the National Weather Service’s Twitter feed turned from wide-eyed forecasting to simply stunned disbelief

All time heat records in the region were not just broken, they were smashed by 10 degrees or more. The probabilities that had to align for such a heatwave to occur were expressed by scientists as a once in 1,000 years event. 

On the ground in Seattle, this three-day attack of heat felt fundamentally different than heatwaves past. It was a perceptible shift into a new paradigm: not the top of the historical temperature scale so much as the introduction of an entirely new one. The sun blazed white, not yellow. The air looked blanched and felt hostile. Residents with basements and air conditioning retreated for cover while the heat tried all the windows and doors. Those without the provisions or air conditioning power for a heat siege of this magnitude were forced to swelter in place or make a run for it through the searing air to cooler homes, hotel rooms, lakes or community centers. Not all of them made it: The attack left a pile of 800 dead bodies in its wake across the region, and when all the “excess deaths” are tallied that number will certainly climb. Other creatures without the means to dodge this sudden new reality died by the billions.  

After three punishing days, the heat passed, roaring eastward, but the effects were far from over. The air smelled burnt and exhausted. Plants were wilted and singed. Many people reported a dragging fatigue days and weeks later. What’s the feeling after being punched in the face by a violence of temperature for three days? Initial relief that it’s over, then the start of a long recovery. The memories of the event will be seared longer still, and the ecological effects will continue to cascade forward in ways we can’t yet anticipate. 

The Paciifc Northwest is supposed to be the cool other side of the pillow in the warming planetary bed we’ve made, and we’re home to no small number of quiet climate refugees slightly smug that they’ve staked their claim ahead of the game. This heatwave’s direct and early attack on the fallback position, the climate crisis panic room, seemed sinister and intentional, like a pointed signal that nowhere is safe from the catastrophic effects of global warming and that danger is effective today. Want to flee further north? Run, human, run. You’ll run right into Lytton, the British Columbia mountain town which set Canada’s national all-time temperature record for two days in a row during the same heat wave, then burned to the ground on the third. There is nowhere to hide. 

Should anyone be surprised? The era of once-unthinkable events has been gaining on us for a while now, and the frequency is increasing exponentially. Wildfires driving whole communities to seek refuge in the ocean? Unthinkable. A polar vortex knocked off its axis to snap the Texas power grid like a twig, leading to dozens freezing to death in their homes? Unthinkable. Catastrophic flooding destroying entire German towns, causing the country’s worst mass death incident in years? Unthinkable. A temperature in a major city that crosses the boundary into being literally unsurvivable by humans? Unthinkable. All have happened. More are coming. 

Much like those of you who eyed the COVID curves in February 2020 and started encouraging your friends and family to prepare, it’s time to start to wrap your head around the idea that the climate crisis is rapidly moving – faster than even the worst-case scenarios anticipated – into the era of the unthinkable. Whether it’s a mountain retreat, a seaside haven, or a regional water compact, what you thought was safe is not. Plan accordingly. 

What can we do to turn this tide? If you have the drive, skills, power or wherewithal (or all of the above), direct them into this fight. It is the issue of our time. It’s why we founded Carbon Credit Cart and while the escalating nature of the climate crisis has underscored that carbon offsets should be but a small part of an “all of the above” solution, they’re a part of the solution available to you right now – and “now” has become the only acceptable timeline for action in the face of a climate crisis that has arrived on our doorstep faster than anyone anticipated.