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Lessons learned from the Pacific Northwest’s 2021 Heat Dome

 A woman and her 4-year-old daughter stand in bathing suits near sprinklers, getting wet in a concrete basin on a sunny day at Northacres Park in Seattle.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Jessica Brustad and her 4-year-old daughter cool off in the sprinklers at Northacres Spraypark in North Seattle. "We come here every day that it's sunny. And when the heat waves come, we live here,” Brustad said. Several other families enjoying the water there on a 77-degree day said they wished for more sprayparks, closer to their homes.

Two years after the deadliest weather-related disaster in Washington state history, public officials are taking stock. High pressure locked the area in a heat dome for a week, starting June 26. It broke dozens of temperature records, killed hundreds of people and sent hundreds more to hospitals, unprepared for the unprecedented heat, especially so early in the summer.

A new report from two groups of researchers at the University of Washington looks back at that event and provides strategies to prevent heat deaths and suffering in the future. It notes that extreme heat events are expected to increase, with likely four times as many days of extreme heat annually in the coming decades.

The authors suggest there are both short- and long-term ways to prepare – and that individual communities should take a “portfolio” approach to planning, tailoring a variety of options to their specific needs and making sure they reach the most vulnerable populations.

Shorter term emergency response planning options include things like extreme weather warning systems, setting up adequate cooling centers and transportation to them as well as delivering water and staging medical supplies and personnel. In the longer term, the report suggests, communities should look at things like occupational safety rules (and enforcement), building health care surge capacity, installing air conditioning or heat pumps in lower-income areas and reducing urban heat islands through planting trees, building green roofs and removing impervious surfaces.

“You really need to have not necessarily all of these strategies, but a large number of them in place, to provide enough health protection that the peoples’ risk levels go down, and they stop suffering or dying from extreme heat,” said Jason Vogel, interim director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group and co-author of the report.

Additionally, addressing the heat will require coordination and cooperation across all sectors, including multiple levels of government – parks and transportation, for example – but also private-sector and community-based groups.

“Ultimately, this is a health issue. But it requires collaboration with a bunch of people who are not primarily health people, and who may not themselves feel that they have a health mandate. But they still have really important roles to play in protecting people from heat,” said co-author Dr. Jeremy Hess, who directs the UW’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

Finding relief

An example of a measure that might be implemented as a short- or longer-term response to the heat: splashparks. Seattle Parks has 11 listed online.

On a recent afternoon, dozens of kids dashed through the sprinklers at Northacres Park in North Seattle, as their guardians looked on or joined them. Among them were Jessica Brustad and her 4-year-old daughter, drying off on the perimeter of the large concrete water basin full of colorful fountains.

“Fortunately, we live in the neighborhood. And we come here every day that it's sunny. And when the heat waves come, we live here,” Brustad said.

Two other families I spoke with drove nearly a half hour to get here on this 77-degree afternoon. Everyone agreed it would be nice to have more splashparks. That came as no surprise to the authors of the new report.

“It’s a really positive way to provide relief from the heat,” said the UW’s Vogel. He said they provide entertainment and help the whole family cool off.

“Kids want to go to splash parks. And when your kids are whining because it's hot. As a parent, you're going to take them to the splashpark and then everyone's going to experience relief from the heat,” he said.

Additionally, they’re a good alternative to rivers and other unsupervised water bodies where many families head when it gets hot. Vogel says this resulted in a spike in drownings in Washington, especially of children, that were a “significant” part of the death toll during the 2021 heat dome. He says splashparks, or temporary splash pads that parks departments can set up, provide a safer, managed environment closer to home. But the risk reduction they provide comes at a cost and put a strain on limited tax dollars.

“Sure it’s fun for kids– but also, it can save lives,” said Vogel.

“So I think it's a part of that awareness raising that needs to be done, that people in parks departments have a really important role to play in protecting people from heat.”

And people in city planning and transportation and dozens of other sectors too, said Hess. For example, they can add reflective coating to asphalt or plant trees strategically to help create cooler urban areas.

The report includes tools to help governments use demographic data to decide which solutions to prioritize and where.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to