Discussion On Heatwave Hazards and Risks in Seattle
However, partly because of the Pacific Northwest’s reputation as a mild climate, residents, governments, and local businesses have historically been underprepared for heatwaves. For example, in 2019, only 44.3% of households in Seattle had air conditioning (Short, 2022). Local government has a role to play in enhancing heatwave preparedness via education, legislation, and material interventions; however, some of these pathways could take a significant amount of time to make a tangible change in the situation. In the meantime, more immediate on-the-ground enhancements to mitigation and preparedness could be achieved by leveraging and partnering with local business interests.
Seattle has a diverse and robust business landscape, made up of players ranging from major international corporations to small start-ups and independent operators. This report will use coffee shops and similar restaurants to illustrate how the city could partner with small businesses to enhance heatwave mitigation in public spaces. Seattle is where the world-famous Starbucks chain was founded, and is a city with a strong coffee culture and association with the beverage, both in the minds of its residents and in the minds of people outside the city (Seattle Times, 2021). Coffee shops are ubiquitous in Seattle and provide a space for people to socialise and sometimes even work, as many provide wi-fi internet access in a similar manner to other restaurants in the modern era.
This report will explore ways in which Seattle’s city government could encourage and assist more heatwave-conscious operations by coffee shops and similar restaurants, which would support people who need to be out of their houses during heatwaves and reduce the impact of such events. This would also promote local business activity and thus enhance economic resilience, in line with the perspectives of the Sendai Framework and sustainable development goals more generally.
Seattle’s Geography and Demographics
Discussion On Heatwave Hazards and Risks in Seattle
is one of the major cities of North America’s Pacific Northwest region, located on an isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, 160 km south of the US-Canada border. Under the Köppen climate classification system, Seattle is in a warm-summer Mediterranean climate zone, but this classification does not necessarily capture the full complexity of its situation as the area receives more rainfall than those more typically associated with the Mediterranean classification (Goble and Hirt, 2012). Over a typical year, temperatures in Seattle usually range between -6 °C at the coldest times to 34 °C at the hottest (NOAA, 2021); daily highs or lows outside this range have occurred, but are uncommon (see section below on Heatwave Hazards and Risks in Seattle).
Seattle is the 18th largest city in the United States and the northernmost major American city, with a 2020 population of just over 4 million in its greater metropolitan area (US Census Bureau, 2021). While Seattle is, on average, a fairly affluent city with a median household income of US$93,481, 11% of the population is also below the poverty line (US Census Bureau, 2018), and King County (where the city is located) has been estimated to have up to 8,000 homeless individuals on average (Committee to End Homelessness in King County, 2007). Persons who are below the poverty line and/or experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to the effects of heatwaves because they may have less control over their living environment, may be unable to adopt the full range of personal mitigation strategies, and in some cases may be unable to seek adequate shelter.
Heatwave Hazards and Risks in Seattle
Seattle has not historically been considered a city at risk for severe heatwaves. As noted above, the usual upper range of temperatures experienced in Seattle is much lower than in many other parts of the United States, particularly the Great Plains region and the Southwest. But in June 2021, the Pacific Northwest experienced what was perhaps the most severe heatwave on record for the region, an event that has come to be referred to as the Heat Dome. Meteorologists believe the event was caused by high-level atmospheric blocking which drew large amounts of warm air from parts of the country further south; this warm air was trapped in a stratifying anticyclone, resulting in a pillar of hot air rising high into the atmosphere above the Pacific Northwest, which raised surface temperatures significantly (Neal et al, 2022).
Many locations in the region experienced their highest temperature on record, including Seattle. The temperature in the city reached almost 42 °C on June 28th 2021. This caused a large cluster of heat-related illness and deaths across the region; in Washington State, the final number of deaths attributed to the heat was 100 (Washington State Department of Health, 2021), taking into account the time interval between the heatwave and the time of death, with incidents separated from the heatwave by hours or less than seven days more likely to be attributable to the heat.
The popular media quickly drew a direct connection between the Heat Dome and climate change or global heating (see, for example, Berardelli, 2021). Scientific attempts to analyse the event’s probability and attribution have been slightly more cautious and slightly less conclusive: while some stated (Philip et al, 2022) that the event was “virtually impossible” without anthropogenic climate change, other modelling suggested that even with the aforementioned global heating, the Heat Dome was essentially a statistical anomaly that would occur only once every 10,000 years (McKinnon and Simpson, 2022).
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