Reflecting on unusually high fall temperatures in Walla Walla

Paul Florence, News Reporter

Illustration by Holly VanVoorhis.

Over the past few summers, Walla Walla has experienced summer temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat waves across the Pacific Northwest can be attributed to recent trends in climate change, according to Yale Climate Connections.

Professor of Biology Heidi Dobson spoke about the impact that increasing temperatures can have on plants and animals across the region. 

“Our increasing summer temperatures, especially [those] over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, can be stressful for our plants (including trees) if they are not adapted to these conditions and do not have access to sufficient water to meet their needs,” Dobson said. “This is most critical for plant species that are not native to this region and its climate.” 

To respond to drastic changes in temperature, Dobson urges Walla Walla to champion more mitigative efforts as a means of reducing the effects of climate change. 

“Plant more species that are adapted to, and hence tolerate, warmer and drier conditions; plant species that are native to eastern Washington,” Dobson said.

Dobson connected the relationship between plants and animals through how they adapt to extreme heat conditions. She believes the adaptability of insects is illustrative of human impact on their habitat.

“[Plants] provide habitat for our native insects, which are indeed decreasing as humans remove and modify their natural habitats and apply pesticides that kill them. In addition, [the pesticides] last in the soil and continue to kill for many years,” Dobson said. “The timing of dry or hot spells will impact different groups of insects in different ways. During hot weather, insects will restrict their activity to times of the day that are favorable for them and their food source.”

Just like plants, local farmers have to adapt to extreme heat conditions as well. Professor of Geology Kevin Pogue spoke about the significance of increasing morning low temperatures and how they have impacted the local fruit growing industry.

“Global warming has increased our average temperature by a couple of degrees over the last 30 years, but that has mostly resulted from an increase in the morning low temperatures, so [it] has had little adverse effect on the community. The increase in morning low temperatures has actually been beneficial to local fruit growers, who have seen a significant increase in the average number of frost-free days over the last 20 years,” Pogue said.

Pogue claimed that it is normal for Walla Walla to have temperatures over 100 degrees. Therefore, the only episode of extreme heat the community has seen was in summer of 2021, when a heat wave swept across the entirety of the Pacific Northwest. 

Professor of Geology Kirsten Nicolaysen spoke about steps the Walla Walla community has started to take in response to global warming and increasing temperatures across the region. 

“The increased amount of greenhouse gasses are projected to increase periodic drought. [They are also projected] to increase the number of days [that have] temperatures exceeding 100 [degrees] Fahrenheit,” Nicolaysen said. “It’s important to consider how to support safe working conditions of those who work outside, whether in construction, agriculture or [other] services.”

She also spoke about how we can make sure the surrounding community, including off-campus housing, is adapted to this new norm of increased heat.

“It would be tremendous if the Whitman community could volunteer to help homeowners who need resources and labor to retrofit their houses to be heat proof,” Nicolaysen said. “Are all the college’s rental houses and interest houses adequately weatherproofed to diminish heat stress and diminish energy needed for winter heating and summer air conditioning?”

We have seen both positive and negative changes in the region due to the higher temperatures from global warming. The positive effects include helping local fruit growers, which in turn helps bolster our small community’s burgeoning wine industry. The negative repercussions, on the other hand, include stress on plants and the increased risk of wildfire near the Mill Creek Watershed, which is our community’s main drinking water source.