Legends surround these deaths in the world's deserts, mortality glimpsed in a mirage.
Only this time, the mirage doesn't disappear.
The map of the American West changed last week as the Pacific Northwest broke heat records. The Oregon Medical Examiner confirmed that 79 people died as a result of temperatures up to 116 degrees in Oregon and Washington state, more than six times the number of people who died from hyperthermia in the two-year period between 2017 and 2019.
Nature has its own map, designed around elevation, trees, water, not national borders, and just over the line in British Columbia, the chief coroner's office received nearly 500 reports of "sudden and unexpected" deaths, many of which were believed to be connected to record temperatures. In the village of Lytton—which on Tuesday recorded Canada's all-time high temperature of of 121—residents were forced to evacuate as a wildfire ripped through the buildings, destroying 90 percent of the town. Many of the area's residents are indigenous, as are a disproportionate number of people affected by climate change.
This was no ordinary heat wave. According to meteorologist Bob Henson and former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hurricane scientist Jeff Masters, last weekend's weather was more extreme than the events leading to the 1930s Dust Bowl.
"It's not hype or exaggeration to call the past week's heatwave the most extreme in world weather records," they wrote in Yale Climate Connections.
People tend not to invest in air conditioning in places like Portland and Seattle. Until now, it didn't matter much. But climate change is here, and it's here to stay. The only question is how dramatic the changes will be. Much of the work before us, as societies and individuals, is learning to adapt.
Buying an air conditioner is a Band-Aid, but to many Americans, it's enough to breathe in the sweet relief. But air conditioning compounds the problem. The discovery of Freon in 1925 transformed American life. It also depleted the ozone layer and injected greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Many of us thought the 1987 Montreal Protocol made it OK to turn the dial up to high cool. And it's true that after this treaty, which remains the only successful international environmental treaty, Freon went away, replaced by refrigerants that didn't deplete the ozone layer.
But the refrigerants manufacturers used instead, while they didn't destroy the ozone, produced an immense amount of greenhouse gases. Eric Dean Wilson told the story in a recent Time magazine article and in his forthcoming book After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and The Terrible Cost of Comfort.
If this "Oops, I did it again" tale doesn't raise deeper questions about the way we live, you're not paying attention. Relying on destructive technology to buffer the effects of climate change is the mindset that got us here. Case in point? As if on cue, a few days after the heatwave, an oil pipeline ignited a fire in the Gulf of Mexico, inspiring mystery writer Tod Goldberg to write: "Look, I'm not a scientist, but I feel like setting the ocean on fire can't be smart."
The takeaway: If we fail to rethink the way we live, from the ground up, we'll simply move further down the road to environmental collapse.
Cultural assumptions make it particularly difficult for Americans to turn things around. The American Way of Isolation is one of many unintended consequences of engineering our way out of a relationship with nature, and the pandemic exacerbated our rugged individualist approach to life.
Our epidemic of aloneness played a role in last weekend's loss of life. When suffering the effects of extreme heat, a person's judgment becomes impaired. Of the nearly 80 deaths last weekend, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that, “many of those who died were found alone, without air conditioning or a fan."
People who sought out their fellow Americans survived. As an alternative to sweating it out, the county set up temporary "cooling shelters" with food, water, cots, blankets, and medical care. People could stay for as little or as long as they wanted - some popped in for an hour or two while others staked out a spot until the heat subsided. This was an unprecedented solution and it worked, erasing the economic inequality that left Portland's poor without air conditioning.
The city's unhoused people were among those seeking relief in the shelters. But many didn't seek help, and you could see them clustering in shaded areas of parks and under bridges. These were among the dead.
Photographer Maranie Rae Staab was out on the Portland streets making pictures. Sometimes she, too, went to the shelter with her cat.
This is what she saw.
Maranie Rae Staab has worked in Iraq, Kurdistan, Congo, Colombia, and Vietnam. Although she is still working internationally, she's been spending much of her time recently documenting American discord. Her photographs have appeared in The New Yorker and The Washington Post, among others.
Brian's Having a Tropical Heat Wave Playlist
No Mercy In July ::: Grant Lee Phillips
The Heat Changed The Colors of My Eyes ::: Kip Hanrahan
Nature’s Law ::: Brian Blade
God & Nature ::: Loudon Wainwright III
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) :::: Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Heat ::: Bobby Cole
Heat Lightning ::: Amy Helm
Heat ::: David Bowie
Nature’s Way ::: Victoria Williams
Red Rain ::: Peter Gabriel