Science

While Canadians look at European heat wave in awe, we face our own climate challenges

As records are breaking across Europe, Canadians may think they’ve gotten off lucky this summer, particularly in light of the record-breaking heat wave in British Columbia last June. While we may have had fewer heat waves this year compared to the past few, it may just be a case of a late start.

We may not have been unusually hot so far this summer, but things may be changing

A woman tries to cool herself in a fountain during a heat wave in Montreal in August 2021. The city is expected to reach humidex values of 40 C on Wednesday. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

Records are breaking across Europe, and Canadians may think they've gotten off lucky this summer, particularly in light of the record-breaking heat wave in British Columbia last June.

But while we've had fewer heat waves this year compared to recent summers, it may just be a case of a late start.

Much of southern Ontario is under a heat warning as of Tuesday, from Windsor through to Ottawa, as is a large swath of Saskatchewan. In southern B.C., temperatures are forecast to be 32 C for much of the week in places like Kamloops and Kelowna, falling just short of the heat warning criteria set out by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).

"We had our turn last year," said ECCC's senior climatologist, David Phillips. "This is what we call the dog days of summer; it's the halfway point. Typically a month after the longest day, you can get the warmest day. Not every year, because it depends on the air mass that you're under, but typically, this is when the residual heat in the land is given up in the lakes and the rivers."

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And, though we had a slow start, there's still a lot of summer to come.

"We really had a kind of a cool, wet spring in most parts of Canada," Phillips said. "And so we've heard about heat waves in the United States and India, and Pakistan and China and Europe. And we're wondering, you know, where are we? Where do we fit in this?"

Because the heat isn't just in Europe right now. 

As of Tuesday, 100 million Americans were under a heat warning or heat advisory, from Texas to parts of New York.

That's not to say temperatures haven't soared in spring or summer in Canada so far — they've just been "one-day wonders," Phillips said. But that's going to change for Eastern Canada.

"Our models are suggesting that the second half of summer is going to be warmer than the first half in Eastern Canada," he said. "We see this week as, really, the first sort of example of that."

Extreme extremes

While every year is different, climate change is altering weather patterns across the globe — as we've seen this year — from more frequent droughts to floods to heat waves. And Canada won't be spared.

"The warming we have experienced is about twice the warming that the global average has experienced," said Greg Flato, a research scientist with ECCC who is also the vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Working Group I. 

Flato said we should expect to see even drier conditions in the Prairies, an area that already experiences dry summers.

"And as the climate warms, they tend to get drier," he said. "That's just kind of a general rule of thumb everywhere: that the dry areas get drier, wet areas get wetter as the climate changes. So we expect to see in general an increase in average precipitation across Canada, particularly in northern Canada."

Last year the Prairies suffered an incredible drought, though Phillips noted that conditions appear to be improving.

When it comes to the future of heat, hotter areas are expected to get hotter.

Take, for example, Toronto, home to more than 2.9 million people. According to the Climate Atlas of Canada, from 1976–2005 the average number of days above 30 C days was 11.9. Under the best case scenario, between 2021–2050, that number will jump to 27.7 days.

In a more extreme example, Medicine Hat, Alta. will see its number jump from 26.4 to 41.2.

This map from ECCC's Canada's Changing Climate Report, released in 2019, illustrates projections of days of warming above 30 C from a low-emission scenario (RCP 2.6) to a high emission scenario (RCP 8.5). (ECCC)

But will we be prepared?

"Just speaking here from British Columbia, the events that we saw last summer indicate that we're not really prepared. That heat wave was much more extreme than then we have experienced in the past," Flato said. 

"And as a result, lots of people died from that heat wave. Similarly, the flooding event that we had overwhelmed a lot of the infrastructure that we have — bridges and culverts and dikes and so on."

But it's not all doom and gloom, Flato stressed.

"We know what we need to do," he said. "We need to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels … we need to start using the energy that comes from renewable sources, rather than non-renewable sources. There's lots of things that we can do to change that, and lots of things that we can do to adapt to the changes that are already upon us.

"We do have the tools available to us to change course, so it's in our hands."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at Nicole.Mortillaro@cbc.ca.

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