Manitoba

Prepare for heat waves that are longer, hotter, and more deadly: climate report

Extreme heat waves brought on by a warming planet are increasing health issues and sickening many Canadians, says a new report from the Prairie Climate Centre.

'I'm not going to sit idle and watch the world literally burn'

Heat waves of the future are going to be longer, hotter and there's going to be more of them across the country, says Ian Mauro, executive director of the University of Winnipeg's Prairie Climate Centre. (CBC)

Extreme heat waves brought on by a warming planet are compromising existing health issues and even making some people sick, says a new report from the Prairie Climate Centre.

The report, called Heat Waves and Health, says health issues impacting cardiovascular and respiratory systems, as well as mental health, are rising along with the Earth's temperature.

"When you take a look at the heat waves that hit Europe this summer, people are literally dying because of this," said Ian Mauro, executive director of the University of Winnipeg's Prairie Climate Centre.

In addition to the health concerns, heat waves create tinder-dry conditions in forests, leading to easy combustion and rapidly spreading flames that threaten communities, he said.

"When you think about Manitoba, we've had these evacuations of northern First Nations. They're getting taken out of their communities under duress and [set up in bigger cities where] they're out of their cultural context," Mauro said, noting how anxiety and mental health issues are impacted.

"We're not here to scare people, we're here to inspire people to think about the future so we can get ready," he said.

"This is a very serious issue and turning it into a health narrative is something that I think pulls people in. It makes them understand that this isn't some sort of scientific discourse. It's about me, it's about my family, it's about future generations of people living on this planet."

Heat waves will lead to droughts, which will impact food and water supplies, experts say. (Getty Images/RooM RF)

The climate report says the number of heat waves across Canada — defined as three days at 30 C or higher — is growing.

Winnipeg, for instance, typically sees two heat waves every year but that's expected to triple by 2050. Vancouver, which has never had one, could face two every year.

In the summer of 2018, temperatures in Montreal soared for eight days straight, reaching a searing high of over 40 C with the humidex. Sixty-six people died from the heat, the climate report notes. 

"Heat waves of the future are going to be longer, hotter and there's going to be more of them, and that's kind of across the country," Mauro said.

In addition to the health concerns, heat waves create tinder-dry conditions in forests, leading to easy combustion and rapidly spreading flames that threaten communities, says Ian Mauro. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

To be ready for that, Mauro said communities need to look at creating networks of cooling stations.

"We've done interviews in Toronto where faith organizations, without funding, are networking together and saying, 'We're big public spaces and if we offer our doors open in the middle of a heatwave, we could save people,'" he said.

Municipalities also need to invest more in public parks with trees and grass, not concrete that radiates heat. 

"We know big swaths of concrete absorb and hold heat in this urban heat-island effect. We don't need these spaces, we need green space," Mauro said.

But more than anything, we need bold political action on climate change, he said, adding he hopes the leaders of Manitoba's political parties, all vying to form the next provincial government, are listening.

"The time for debate around whether or not climate change is real or not is over and the question is, what is the fastest, boldest and most effective strategy that can be deployed in Manitoba to prepare us for this kind of climate future?" Mauro said. 

"We need bold action now. We need the next government to be developing policies that create real tangible strategies for adaptation so people can be ready for whatever change is happening."

Driving down carbon emission levels must become a priority for politicians and the general public, says Ian Mauro. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A key part of that is to drive down carbon emission levels, otherwise any climate action is akin to a dog chasing its own tail, Mauro said.

"The issues will just keep getting worse and we'll have to adapt more and more and more and we're just kind of spinning ourselves out," he said.

"So I'd like to see the leaders of these parties taking this seriously and I'd like to see really concrete steps around what kind of climate action they're ready to propose, and get past the kind of political [rhetoric] to some very serious strategies."

The heatwave data from the Prairie Climate Centre report has been added to the centre's interactive Climate Atlas of Canada, which lets readers view maps that can be clicked on to reveal the number of heat waves projected for almost any community.

"We have to be preparing now. So [this report] is a call to action," Mauro said.

Even with the concerns and grim projections, there is hope, he said.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't actually believe we could find our way out of this this issue. I've got young kids and I'm not going to sit idle and watch the world literally burn," he said.

"Humans are ingenious creatures and we have the science and technology to solve this. Most of the actual things that we need to do have been worked out. We just need, again, the political will to connect the dots. We need the political will to engage citizens and we need the funding to implement the programs."

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