Five ways the Pacific Northwest heatwave is breaking cities’ infrastructure

Record-breaking heat has impacted roads and transit in Portland and elsewhere in the Pacific northwest and western Canada.
Record-breaking heat has impacted roads and transit in Portland and elsewhere in the Pacific northwest and western Canada.
Image: REUTERS/Maranie Staab
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The heat dome that has sent temperatures soaring above 110°F (43°C) in parts of the western US and Canada over the past five days has taken a toll on the built environment. In a temperate climate that usually experiences summer highs around 70°F, the roads, water supply, and electricity grids of cities weren’t built to withstand this kind of heat. In a matter of days, the extreme weather has damaged key infrastructure in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and elsewhere. Here is some of what’s been impacted:

Roads are cracking and buckling from the heat

Across the region, the intense heat is causing concrete to expand and buckle, leaving dangerous cracks in roads, bridges, and highways. In Pierce County, Washington, public works crews used sand and water trucks to control temperatures on the roads. In Seattle, concrete panels on freeways crumbled and caused traffic jams.

Blackouts are hitting the electrical grid

Northwest utility company Avista Corp, which supplies electricity to some 340,000 customers throughout Oregon and Washington, announced rolling blackouts over the evening of June 28 and into the next morning to cope with increased demands on the power grid. About 8,200 people lost power on the 28th. “The temperatures that we experienced caused our system to react in a way that was unanticipated,” an Avista senior vice president said, according to the Spokesman-Review. “We saw much more significant loads than we expected.”

Streetcar cables are melting

Portland had to suspend its light rail streetcar service from June 27 through June 29 because of extreme heat. Portland Streetcar tweeted a photo of a power cable whose insulation had partially melted away due to heat.

Water is running out

Over the weekend, the city of Milton, Washington issued an alert asking residents to conserve water, as the city reservoirs were running low. The status of the water supply has since improved from “critical” to “crucial,” but residents are still being asked to keep their water usage to a minimum.

It’s too hot for normal activities

Outdoor pools have closed, restaurants have had to shut down, even ice cream parlors can’t open. The owner of Fifty Licks Ice Cream told NPR, “The air conditioning can’t keep up.” In Eugene, Oregon, the US track and field olympic trials had to be suspended on the 27th due to the extreme heat.

Sign displaying temperature of 108 degrees sits on athletic field below sign reading "
Extreme heat in Eugene, Oregon temporarily suspended events at the US Track and Field olympic trials.
Image: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports