'Lost for words': Nations buckling under 'life-threatening' heat

North America is buckling under an unprecedented heatwave, sparking "existential dread" in residents as temperatures reach disturbing new peaks.

Cities across the United States and Canada have smashed their previous highs for the hottest day on record, with some notching new highs for three days in a row.

Intense. Prolonged. Record-breaking. Unprecedented. Abnormal. Dangerous.

That's how the United States National Weather Service has described the historic heatwave hitting the Pacific Northwest of the country forcing people into state run "cooling shelters".

People lying on mats inside the Oregon Convention Center cooling station as the state struggles to cope with soaring temperatures.
People rest at the Oregon Convention Center cooling station as the state struggles to cope with soaring temperatures. Source: Getty Images

In Canada, the town of Lytton in British Colombia has produced a new heat record for three days in a row.

The previous all-time high of 45C was eclipsed on Sunday (local time) when the small town recorded a temperature of 46.6 degrees. That was followed by 47.5 the following day.

On Tuesday, it smashed that record by hitting 49 degrees.

The major Canadian city of Vancouver also set an all-time heat record on Sunday while on Tuesday more than two dozen deaths were reported in a 24-hour period in western Canada with the extreme heat seen as a contributing cause in most of the cases.

Reporting on the heatwave on Wednesday, ABC meteorologist Nate Byrne said he was "lost for words".

In the US, the cities of Portland and Salem in Oregon, and Seattle in Washington have also set new temperature records.

In Salem, Oregon's state capital, temperatures on Monday (local time) reached 47.2C. That's the hottest since record-keeping began in the 1890s.

"To put it in perspective, today will likely go down in history as the hottest day ever recorded for places such as Seattle, WA and Portland, OR," the National Weather Service said.

"This is life-threatening heat," Jennifer Vines, health officer for Multnomah County in Oregon, said in a statement.

"People need to find some place cool to spend time during the coming days."

'It's completely shutting down our life'

The heat has been attributed to a dome of atmospheric high pressure over the upper US Northwest and Canada.

Portland, known for rainy weather and sparse sunshine, was especially ill-prepared to handle the high temperatures with makeshift "cooling centres" set up to help people escape the sweltering conditions.

Stores sold out of air conditioning units and ice was hard to find, according to local reports.

A boy cools off in a water fountain as other children stand nearby on the riverside during a heatwave in Portland.
A boy cools off in a riverfront water fountain during a heatwave in Portland, Oregon. Source: Getty Images

Bars and restaurants closed because kitchen vents could not keep up with the rising temperatures, creating dangerous conditions for cooks.

"It's completely shutting down our life; my kids are stuck inside," Jake Edgar, a 30-year-old chef at a Portland restaurant told Reuters.

Multnomah County, which includes Portland, has opened 11 emergency "cooling shelters". Most of them are in public libraries, where residents without air conditioning could escape the unprecedented conditions.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown even eased Covid-19 restrictions for theatres, swimming pools and shopping centres and residents flocked to public pools and even fountains to cool off.

People sleep at a cooling shelter set up during an unprecedented heat wave in Portland, Oregon, on June 27.
People sleep at a cooling shelter set up during an unprecedented heat wave in Portland, Oregon, on June 27. Source: Reuters

A sense of 'existential dread' in the air

Writing in The Washington Post, journalist Charlie Warzel described "an edge in the air" at the supermarket as people tried to stock up on supplies and beat the heat.

"The physical danger is real in a region where air conditioning is rare, and the stagnating heat is impossible to ignore, but all this record-breaking has fed another sensation just as oppressive: a lingering existential dread about the future," he wrote.

"There’s a distinct psychological pain that accompanies the thought that the unbearable present is only a preview of the extreme climate to come."

While it's unclear if the heatwave smothering the continent can be linked to ongoing climate change, more unusual and extreme weather patterns will become increasingly common amid rising global temperatures, climatologists warn.

with Reuters

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