When extreme heat bears down on the Seattle area, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are more likely to experience the brunt of high temperatures.
Across the United States, temperatures soar in areas with fewer trees, more paved surfaces, tall buildings, large industrial parks and major thoroughfares — neighborhoods where marginalized communities disproportionately live. On Thursday, daytime temperatures are forecast to hit a high of 90 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but the heat will be unevenly felt across King County.
Race and wealth are critical factors defining whether Washington residents swelter in the sun or enjoy temperate summer days, said Edgar Frank, political director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent farmworker union based in Burlington.
For essential workers more likely to be exposed to high temperatures, such as agricultural laborers and fast-food workers, extreme heat poses a major health hazard. In the Pacific Northwest, where in-home cooling systems are relatively limited, lower-income renters are less likely to have air conditioning.
“This goes back to environmental racism and who bears the brunt of climate and environment injustice,” Frank said. “These are sacrificial zones. These are the people who will bear the brunt so the rest of us can live a little better.”
In Beacon Hill, where census data show about three in four residents identify as a person of color, not everyone can afford to purchase air conditioners and fans, said Maria Batayola, the environmental justice coordinator at the Seattle-based nonprofit El Centro de la Raza, which serves Latino and other diverse communities.
Neighbors find affordable ways to stay cool, like hanging heavy bed sheets or shiny aluminum foil against windows, Batayola said. Washington state last year expanded its energy assistance program to help low-income residents secure air conditioning.
But that alone isn’t enough, said Esther Min, director for environmental health research and partnerships at Front and Centered, a statewide environmental justice coalition led by communities of color.
Marginalized communities that have experienced historical disinvestment need more permanent climate resilience projects, she said, such as green spaces with trees and community centers with cooling.
A 2020 study published in the scientific journal Climate found that across 108 cities in the United States, the vast majority of formerly redlined areas experience hotter surface temperatures than non-redlined neighborhoods, in some cases by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Seattle, the difference between the coolest and hottest neighborhoods could be as much as 14.5 degrees, according to a 2019 NPR analysis of surface thermal data from NASA and U.S. Geological Survey satellite imagery from summer days in the last decade. NPR reported a moderate correlation between heat and income in Seattle.
The same day 98.1-degree heat hit the Georgetown neighborhood, where the median household income is about $52,100, residents in Magnolia, where the median household income is about $217,900, experienced about 84.4-degree temperatures, NPR found.
Areas like the Chinatown International District, the Central District, swaths of North Seattle and Beacon Hill, New Holly and other parts of Greater Duwamish were hotter compared to other neighborhoods, according to NPR’s analysis.
Excessive heat can trigger serious health issues like heat stroke, particularly for older people and people with chronic conditions like heart disease or obesity. Heat can also worsen respiratory symptoms like asthma. Who develops chronic health issues — and who can get treatment for it — is heavily correlated with income.
Extreme heat can also be deadly. During the unprecedented heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest last year, about 800 people died across Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. In King County, there were at least 34 heat-related deaths reported by the end of last summer.
Fueled by climate change, heat streaks are becoming longer. Seattle is experiencing years that have at least seven 90+ degree days more frequently. Extreme heat events are expected to become more common across the Pacific Northwest as a result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
County and city officials are well aware of the uneven impacts of extreme heat. Last year, the county released a map of high temperatures recorded in July 2020, showing the difference between some areas varied by more than 23 degrees.
Areas of South King County, including Auburn, Kent, Renton and Burien, experienced particularly high temperatures in the afternoons and evenings.
In response to last year’s heat wave, King County planted trees, built bus shelters and increased its volunteer network to better relay emergency heat information in multiple languages.
In June, King County officials announced it would develop an extreme heat mitigation plan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently awarded about $130,000 to the county to fund the work, according to county spokesperson Doug Williams.
County officials plan to focus on a number of strategies to deal with extreme heat, such as increasing tree canopies, adding water features and cooling centers to neighborhoods, expanding the use of green roofs and updating urban planning and building codes to improve heat resilience.