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How hot will it get? Study predicts climate change’s impact on Whatcom temperatures

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An introduction to the causes of modern-day climate change, signs that the climate is already changing, and how climate change affects the environment and human well-being.

Whatcom County and the temperate Northwest won’t get a pass on warmer temperatures as the climate warms, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A report released Tuesday, July 16, by the nonprofit science advocacy organization based in the United States says Whatcom County, and almost everywhere else in the U.S., could see an increase in the number of extreme heat days each year due to climate change.

“Few places would be unaffected by extreme heat conditions by mid-century, and only a few mountainous regions would remain extreme heat refuges by the century’s end,” a release about the study stated.

The report breaks down what each county in the nation can expect in terms of heat index measurements, or what it really feels like outside, before the end of the century.

According to the study, Whatcom County currently averages zero days per year with a heat index higher than 90 degrees. But if carbon emissions continue at their current rates, here’s what the study predicts is in store for Whatcom County residents:

We could average two days per year with a heat index of 90 degrees or higher by mid-century and 11 days of 90 degrees or higher by century’s end.

We could average two days per year with heat indexes of 100 degrees or higher by century’s end.

We could average one day per year with a heat index 105 degrees or higher by century’s end.

According to a map accompanying the report, Whatcom County would still be one of the relatively cooler areas to live in the contiguous 48 states with comparably fewer days exceeding heat indexes of 90 degrees, the point at which outdoor workers generally become susceptible to heat-related illnesses — or 100 and 105 degrees, when the National Weather Service generally recommends issuing heat advisories and excessive heat warnings.

“The U.S. Northwest region ... would see an average of 37 days per year with a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 10 days per year with a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if no action is taken to reduce global warming emissions, with Washington seeing the largest rise in extreme heat,” the release stated.

The study predicts Washington state could see 35 days per year with an average heat index of 90 degrees or higher by century’s end if current carbon emissions continue, up from an average of four per year now, and more than 860,000 people would be exposed to dangerous heat indexes for more than two months per year.

According to the release, the projections were made by averaging 18 high-resolution climate models between April and October to calculate the number of high heat index days. The report looked at three possible scenarios:

If “no action” is taken to reduce carbon emissions and the global average temperature increases by approximately 8 degrees above pre-industrial levels by century’s end.

If “slow action” is taken to begin reducing carbon emissions by mid-century and the global average temperature increases approximately 4.3 degrees above pre-industrial levels by century’s end.

If “rapid action” is taken and global average warming is limited to 3.6 degrees by century’s end in line with the Paris Agreement to combat climate change.

According to the map, the study found Whatcom County would see a heat index 90 degrees or higher two days per year by century’s end if “slow action” is taken and just one day per year by century’s end if “rapid action” is taken, and 100-plus-degree heat indexes would not be expected for the area.

“The report clearly shows how actions taken, or not taken, within the next few years to reduce emissions will help determine how hot and humid our future becomes,” the release stated. “The longer the U.S. and other countries wait to drastically reduce emissions, the less feasible it will be to realize the ‘rapid action scenario’ analyzed.”

According to National Weather Service records, the hottest months at Bellingham International Airport are July and August, with average high temperatures of 71.3 and 71.9, respectively. The hottest recorded temperature at the airport was 96 degrees on July 29, 2009, though 18 other days have record highs in the 90s since record-keeping began.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.
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