Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Wildfires rage amid a devastating heatwave in the Pacific Northwest

Flames surround the drought-stricken Shasta Lake in Lakehead, California on July 2, 2021. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Scientists Call Northwest Heatwave the 'Most Extreme in World Weather Records'

"Never in the century-plus history of world weather observation have so many all-time heat records fallen by such a large margin."

Jake Johnson

A pair of climate scientists on Thursday said the record-high temperatures that have ravaged the northwestern U.S. and western Canada over the past week—killing hundreds and sparking dozens of wildfires—represent the "world's most extreme heatwave in modern history."

"It's not hype or exaggeration to call the past week's heatwave the most extreme in world weather records."
—Bob Henson, Jeff Masters

"Never in the century-plus history of world weather observation have so many all-time heat records fallen by such a large margin than in the past week's historic heatwave in western North America," meteorologist Bob Henson and former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hurricane scientist Jeff Masters wrote for Yale Climate Connections.

"It's not hype or exaggeration to call the past week's heatwave the most extreme in world weather records," they argued. "The only heatwave that compares is the great Dust Bowl heatwave of July 1936 in the U.S. Midwest and south-central Canada. But even that cannot compare to what happened in the Northwest U.S. and western Canada over the past week."

In British Columbia, the chief coroner said her office has received nearly 500 reports of "sudden and unexpected" deaths since last Friday, many of which are believed to be connected to the record temperatures that the region has suffered in recent days.

Residents of the small British Columbia village of Lytton—which on Tuesday recorded Canada's all-time high temperature of 121°F—were forced to evacuate Wednesday as a wildfire ripped through the area and quickly engulfed the small town, destroying homes and buildings.

"Our poor little town of Lytton is gone," Edith Loring-Kuhanga, an administrator at a local school, wrote in a Facebook post. "Our community members have lost everything."

Henson and Masters called Lytton—90% of which was burned—the "poster community" of the "horrific" heatwave.

Weather historian Christopher Burt told the two scientists that "this is the most anomalous regional extreme heat event to occur anywhere on Earth since temperature records began."

"Nothing can compare," Burt added.

To emphasize the "extremity of this event," Henson and Masters highlighted just some of the temperature records that have fallen in Canada and the United States since late last week.

  • Portland, Oregon, broke its longstanding all-time record high (107°F from 1965 and 1981) on three days in a row—a stunning feat for any all-time record—with highs of 108°F on Saturday, June 26; 112°F on Sunday; and 116°F on Monday. That 116°F is one degree higher than the average daily high on June 28 at Death Valley, California.
  • Quillayute, Washington, broke its official all-time high by a truly astonishing 11°F, after hitting 110°F on Monday (old record: 99°F on August 9, 1981). Quillayute is located near the lush Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula, just three miles from the Pacific Ocean, and receives an average of 100 inches of precipitation per year.
  • Jasper, Alberta, broke its all-time high of 36.7°C (98.1°F) on four days in a row, June 27-30, with highs of 37.3°C, 39.0°C, 40.3°C, and 41.1°C (99.1°F, 102.2°F, 104.5°F, and 106°F).
  • All-time state highs were tied in Washington (118°F at Dallesport) and set in Oregon (118°F at Hermiston, beating the reliable record of 117°F), and provincial highs were smashed in British Columbia (49.6°C [121.3°F] at Lytton, beating 39.1°C [102.4°F]) and Northwest Territories (39.9°C [103.8°F] at Fort Smith, beating 31.7°C [89.1°F]).

"Preliminary data from NOAA's U.S. Records website shows that 55 U.S. stations had the highest temperatures in their history in the week ending June 28," Henson and Masters wrote. "More than 400 daily record highs were set. Over the past year, the nation has experienced about 38,000 daily record highs versus about 18,500 record lows, consistent with the 2:1 ratio of hot to cold records set in recent years."

Scientists have long predicted that heatwaves of the kind that are scorching the Northwestern U.S. and Canada will become more frequent and intense across the globe as the planet continues to warm due to the continued emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

"Nowhere is safe... who would have predicted a temperature of 48/49°C [118.4°F/120.2°F] in British Columbia?" Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser in the United Kingdom, said in an interview with The Guardian. "The risks have been understood and known for so long and we have not acted, now we have a very narrow timeline for us to manage the problem."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

'A Day of Shame': Australia Lobbying Thwarts Push to List Great Barrier Reef as Endangered

Greenpeace Australia called Friday's World Heritage Committee vote "a victory for one of the most cynical lobbying efforts in recent history."

Jake Johnson ·


Revealing 'Extreme and Regressive Strategy,' Mississippi Asks SCOTUS to Overturn Roe

"This has always been the anti-choice movement's agenda behind closed doors—now they're operating in plain sight."

Andrea Germanos ·


'A Huge Outrage': Senate Panel Approves $25 Billion Pentagon Budget Increase

"Not so incidentally, the $25 billion spending increase approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee exactly matches the cost to scale up Covid-19 vaccine production to meet global demand."

Jake Johnson ·


Sanders, Lee, and Murphy Slam Biden Administration's First Drone Strike in Somalia

"It's time to do away with questionable legal justifications claimed by one administration after the next for acts of war like this."

Jake Johnson ·


Progressives Demand Probe After Revelations About FBI Investigation of Kavanaugh

"Survivors deserve justice, and the country deserves to know the full truth of this situation, as well as the lengths the Trump administration was willing to go to cover up the truth."

Jessica Corbett ·