No, The West Coast Heat Wave Has Nothing To Do With Climate Change

No, The West Coast Heat Wave Has Nothing To Do With Climate Change

As Ockham's Razor says, the simplest answer is usually the right one. The simplest explanation for the heat wave is not climate change.
Chuck DeVore
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Was last week’s record heatwave in the Pacific Northwest caused by a climate-altering buildup of human greenhouse gases? The once-august Scientific American claimed it was, declaring, “Unprecedented Heat Wave in Pacific Northwest Driven by Climate Change.” Other outlets like the Washington Post echoed this narrative.

It’s helpful to remember climate change commentators live by two rules: First, everything is linked to climate change. Second, when in doubt, see rule number one. This simple, two-rule test shows up in any of the activist corporate media’s coverage of climate “related” events. It’s what makes them both boring and predictable.

Yet what happened in the Pacific Northwest the week before Independence Day was caused by the weather, not the climate. Simply put, a high-pressure dome built up over southern British Columbia. This caused strong downslope winds from the north.

Those winds curved right, flowing up and over the Cascade Range. As the winds picked up speed going downhill towards Seattle, Portland, and other cities closer to the coast, the air rapidly compressed and heated up. Gases do that when they get compressed. It’s simple physics (as compared to the almost infinitely complex physics of climate change).

Proponents of climate concern suggest the Earth has warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. But only in the fantasy land of complex and unproven attribution models would this change be directly responsible for the recent heatwave.

The spate of broken high-temperature records is likewise completely unsurprising. Accurate and regular temperature records for Seattle only began in February 1870. It wasn’t until 1894 that the U.S. Weather Bureau finally had its statewide network in place in Washington.

With 151 years of data for Seattle, then, any given day represents 0.7 percent of the record for that particular date, meaning that every day there’s a one-in-151 chance of setting a new record high or low for that date, and every year will see a 0.7 percent likelihood of setting new record highs or lows.

According to the University of Washington, the hottest temperature recorded in the state was 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Wahluke reached this temperature on July 24, 1928, and the ironically named Ice Harbor Dam tied the record on August 5, 1961.

The university lists other extreme weather events and their dates, including lowest temperatures in 1968, record rainfall in 1986, record snowfall in 1994, maximum snow depth in 1956, etc. These weather extremes don’t suggest a pattern, although perhaps another 200 years of record gathering might provide a degree of statistical certainty.

I was born in Seattle in 1962. As a child, I vividly recall watching industrial developments with melancholy, as old farmhouses were bulldozed to make way for subdivisions. But development has another effect more reliably concrete than the wistful memories of a child: the urban heat island effect.

Thermometers that were once in the countryside surrounded by fields of grass eventually ended up in the city. The asphalt, concrete, and nearby air conditioning units render their daily readings absolutely useless for the purposes of comparison. This urban heat island effect results in temperatures as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit higher than in rural areas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — more than three times the presumed average increase in temperatures over the past century.

Watch for activist media to attribute two more weather-related phenomena on the West Coast to manmade climate change: the upcoming wildfire season in California and the current drought. However, both fires and droughts were prevalent in the area long before the Industrial Revolution.

California’s early photographic record would shock current Californians. A book titled “Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849,” published in 2001, shows a California landscape alien to modern residents, with old tintypes revealing lone stands of pines and oaks and broad fields of grass. This land was shaped by constant burning by the Native Americans who knew little food grew under a dense forest canopy.

Now, billions of board feet of timber grow in California every year, with a small fraction harvested (loggers also cleaned out the underbrush). Since California has a Mediterranean climate, with some 80 percent of its precipitation falling over a five-month period even in the wettest years, it’s dry by the end of summer, priming the forests and coastal chaparral for fire season.

The bottom line of wildfires is cruelly simple: What grows must be harvested or it will eventually burn, either under intentional, controlled circumstances or unintentionally.

As for drought on the Pacific coast, long-term climate patterns have routinely produced 10-to-20-year droughts over the past millennium, with two known megadroughts lasting 240 years (beginning in 850 A.D.) and 180 years (only 50 years after the previous one ended).

Unfortunately for average Californians, the state’s elected class long ago foreswore the construction of new reservoirs and aqueducts, amplifying the negative consequences of drought. This has incentivized politicians to shift blame to human-driven climate change, to absolve themselves of negligence.

As Ockham’s Razor says, the simplest answer is usually the right one. And the simplest explanation for the latest West Coast heat wave is not climate change.

Chuck DeVore is vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served in the California State Assembly from 2004 to 2010.

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