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Residents gather in a public cooling shelter set up at the Oregon Convention Center during a heat wave in Portland on June 26, 2021. (Maranie Staab/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The dangerous heat wave enveloping the Pacific Northwest is shattering weather records by such large margins that it is making even climate scientists uneasy.

Why it matters: Infrastructure, including heating and cooling, is built according to expectations of a "normal" climate. Human-caused climate change is quickly redefining that normal, while dramatically raising the likelihood of events that simply have no precedent.

  • These risks include extreme heat events that can have unusually high impacts.
  • That is exactly what is playing out now, with a region of the country largely devoid of air conditioning suffering through unheard-of temperatures over a prolonged stretch of time.
  • In the past, such events have proven to be especially deadly, killing more than 70,000 in Europe in 2003, for example.

Driving the news: The heat wave is shattering all-time temperature records in the U.S. and Canada. Portland, Oregon reached 112°F on Sunday, breaking the all-time record of 108°F set just the day before.

  • Canada set a national all-time heat record on Monday, smashing the old record by nearly 3°F.
  • The buildings in these regions were not built for extreme heat, and the people living there are not accustomed to it. Public officials have been scrambling to get people to use cooling shelters to escape the sweltering temperatures.

Between the lines: "Because of the fact that climate change has made heatwaves like this much more likely and intense, we might very well reach the tipping point of what our infrastructure and other societal systems are able to deal with," Friederike Otto, of the University of Oxford, told Axios.

How it works: The heat dome over the Northwest, which is a sprawling, intense area of high pressure aloft, causes air to sink, or compress. As it does so, the air temperatures increase. Winds blowing from land to sea around this high are pushing temperatures higher.

The big picture: However, climate scientists tell Axios this actually understates climate change's influence, since warming is also altering weather patterns in ways that makes strong heat domes more common and prolonged.

  • Daniel Swain, a climate researcher at UCLA, told Axios that the mean warming in the region is "more likely a floor than a ceiling," given climate change's potential effects on atmospheric circulation, soil moisture, and other conditions that can amplify extreme heat.
  • In addition, Swain said a focus on tipping points within the climate system alone may be misguided. He also warned of "systemic failures," citing the operation of the power grid as an example of systems that can fail in extreme weather. (See: Texas, winter 2021.)

Of note: Scientists may also be missing part of the tie between global warming and extreme events, creating an even greater societal vulnerability to these events since we're not properly anticipating them and hardening our infrastructure, according to Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Penn State.

  • Mann and his colleagues have zeroed in on persistent, unusual contortions in the jet stream, which is the high altitude river of air that helps steer storms, as being linked with heat extremes such as this one.
  • Climate models, he says, don't come close to simulating how such patterns are changing in frequency and magnitude as the world warms.

The bottom line: "If our decision makers do not take this heat wave as a harbinger of things to come and act quickly to adopt the climate change policies we all know are needed, I fear for the future of humanity," Jean Flemma, an oceans policy expert living in Portland, told Axios on Sunday.

  • "This is not sustainable in a city like [Portland] that was not built for this scenario."

Go deeper

Smoke-filled air sticks around in the Twin Cities

Image courtesy of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Metro residents are breathing easier this morning, but we aren't in the clear yet.

What's happening: Most of the state remains under an "unprecedented" air quality alert thanks to a thick plume of smoke from Canadian wildfires that blew our way and won't budge.

  • While the outlook improved Sunday, the Air Quality Index in Minneapolis and St. Paul is expected to hit "unhealthy for sensitive groups," such as the elderly, children and those with asthma or other breathing conditions, per the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Why it matters: It's gross! No, seriously, the smoke-filled air that blanketed the Twin Cities in recent days is bad for residents' health and can cause shortness of breath, chest pain and other uncomfortable symptoms.

  • Area hospitals saw an increase in complaints of shortness of breath over the weekend, the Star Tribune reports, and several area pools closed as a precaution.

Manhattan, Westchester prosecutors request evidence from Cuomo investigation

Gov. Cuomo during a press conference in New York City on Aug. 2. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The district attorneys for Manhattan and Westchester County on Wednesday requested evidence related to New York Attorney General Letitia James' investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), according to a letter obtained by NBC News.

Why it matters: The district attorneys are investigating if alleged conduct highlighted in an independent report published by James' office that occurred in their jurisdictions was criminal in nature.

Scoop: Buzzy media startup Puck launches in beta

Puck.news

Puck, a splashy new digital media company, is coming out of stealth mode, Axios has learned. The company debuted its landing page, puck.news, on Wednesday, and will officially launch its website in September.

Why it matters: The company has been quietly building a roster of top talent, but hadn't confirmed its branding or exact business plans up until now.

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