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A 3-day blast of summer became the region's deadliest single incident in decades. It's supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Meteorologists aren't so sure.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA - Thousands sheltered from the heat inside the Oregon Convention Center last month. The grim tally from an unprecedented heat wave marched upwards as state authorities counted nearly 100 deaths attributed to the severe weather event.

In an update released July 2, state troopers reported that 95 people perished during the unbearable weather that scorched much of Oregon between June 25 to 28.

A majority of the deaths — 59 — occurred in Multnomah County, with another eight reported in Washington County and ten in Clackamas County.

To put that in perspective, Portland residents and leaders have been shocked by the uptick in homicides during the pandemic. The city has seen 48 such deaths in the first six months of 2021.

The recent heat dome killed many more in just under four days.

The city also has experienced 29 traffic fatalities this year; far lower than the heat deaths from one prolonged incident.

A heat dome is a weather phenomenon in which high-pressure atmospheric conditions have trapped air coming in from the Pacific Ocean, according to the international news broadcaster, Sky News, "heating the air column while compressing it down, like a lid on a saucepan."

It was a so-called black swan event: An unpredictable event that is beyond what could be anticipated and which has severe consequences. The term is credited to both the 2nd-century Roman poet Juvenal — who noted that all swans are white, and seeing a black swan would be without precedence — and the Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The good news: this could be a once-in-a-lifetime event, according to a nationwide report from CBS News about the Northwest's three days of temperatures hotter than Death Valley or most Middle Eastern cities. "By one measure it is more rare than a once-in-a-1,000-year event," according to the CBS article, "which means that if you could live in this particular spot for 1,000 years, you'd likely only experience a heat dome like this once, if ever."

That may be true, but meteorologists warn: we're not out of the frying pan yet.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA - A Cascadia volunteer delivers a water bottle to a homless person lying in the grass during the unprecedented June heat wave.

Climate change

While the deadly heat wave was remarkable, it's not the first time Portland has seen triple digit temperatures.

"We don't top 100 every year, but some years we do it multiple times," said Paul Loikith, a meteorologist and climate scientist who directs Portland State University's climate science lab. "For example, Portland recorded five days above 100 in 1941 and five days above 100 in 1977. So far this year we've had three days, for reference."

Loikith said what made the late June weather so remarkable was the magnitude of the heat, with Portland surpassing its all-time record hottest temperature of 107 on Saturday, June 26, then shattering Saturday's record on Sunday when the city hit 112, then 116 on Monday.

"That is astounding!" Loikith said.

While the climate is getting hotter and Oregon should expect to see more triple digit heat in the future, it will be more of a gradual climb than a jump.

"Putting this event into climate change context, Oregon's summers have been getting hotter (as they have been in most parts of the world) due primarily to human-caused global warming," Loikith said. "This warming makes hot events hotter and cool events warmer. So when we get an extreme heat event now, it is safe to assume that the event is hotter than it would have been if it occurred 50 years ago. Likewise, extreme heat events will be even hotter than today 50 years from now."

But he warned against attempting to read the tea leaves, in fear of another heat dome.

"We have to be careful to not use one extreme weather event on its own as an indicator of things to come. There is a natural tendency to worry that when something previously unheard of occurs it may be a new normal or happen with some regularity going forward, but in the case of extreme weather and climate change, that's not really how it works. Weather is highly, highly variable and if you have a long enough weather record it is pretty amazing what types of rare extreme events are possible. Climate change is also like a ramp, not a cliff or ledge, meaning the warming and related impacts increase over time (as they have been for decades now and will continue to do so in the future), but change doesn't generally just happen all of a sudden."

MULTNOMAH COUNTY PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA - A woman pours a water bottle onto her neck during the deadly June heat wave in Oregon.

Death toll

Beyond the 77 fatalites reported in the tri-county metro area, Oregon State Police officials report 12 deaths in Marion County, two in Deschutes county, as well as one death each in Umatilla, Columbia and Polk counties.

Twenty seven of the dead were identified as female, while the remaining 67 were men.

The youngest to die was 37; the eldest, 97.

Three of the victims were in their 90s, nine were in their 80s, 24 were in their 70s, 29 were in their 60s, 19 were in their 50s, seven were in their 40s and two were in their 30s.

Editor Dana Haynes and Reporters Jim Redden, Zane Sparling and Courtney Vaughn contributed to this article.


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