Science·What on Earth?

Heat waves are here to stay, but Vancouver community groups are finding new ways to keep people safe

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how communities in Vancouver are battling heat waves and examine the disturbing items various droughts have exposed this summer.

Also: What droughts have revealed

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • Heat waves are here to stay, but Vancouver community groups are finding new ways to keep people safe
  • Drought has unearthed a variety of strange and scary objects
  • Coasts need living shorelines to stave off erosion, says P.E.I. researcher

Heat waves are here to stay, but Vancouver community groups are finding new ways to keep people safe

A woman standing in front of a cooler marked 'Community Cooler.'
(Rachel Sanders/CBC)
Gordon Neighbourhood House ramped up its heat safety work after last year’s heat dome, which broke temperature records and killed 619 people across British Columbia.

On a hot summer day in Vancouver's west end, Jess Coombs stands on a tree-lined plaza in front of a grey and white building decorated with rainbow flags. He laughs and jokes with passersby, his voice echoing off the surrounding apartment blocks. 

"Anybody need some water? Ma'am? You've got to stay hydrated," Coombs calls, beckoning a pregnant woman over to a cooler filled with ice-cold drinks. 

"We've got free water and Gatorade," he says. "Everyone's welcome."

Coombs is a new member of the team at Gordon Neighbourhood House, a community organization working to keep people cool in the summer heat. In the face of climate change, says Coombs, neighbours have to help each other out. 

"It's basically making sure in my building I'm checking on my neighbours," he told What On Earth. "And as I'm learning, here at Gordon House, the philosophy … is just pitching together, making sure everybody's OK."

Gordon House, which has been in the city's west end for 80 years, is part of a network of eight non-profit Neighbourhood Houses around Vancouver that provide services to people of all ages. The organization ramped up its heat safety work after last year's heat dome, which broke temperature records and killed 619 people across British Columbia.

Executive director Siobhan Powlowski (photo above) says the heat dome hit this area hard. The sun beat down on the apartment towers, heating them up like greenhouses as temperatures rose into the 40s. 

"We had quite a few folks in this neighbourhood who unfortunately did not make it through the heat dome, which was really quite traumatic," said Powlowski.

The loss of community members brought the realities of climate change home, she said. "We knew that this was something that was happening in the world around us. [But] it's not something that we incorporated into our day-to-day or even seasonal planning." 

The heat dome changed that. Although extreme weather caused by climate change affects everyone, a report into the 619 deaths by the BC Coroners Service made clear that those who are isolated and don't have people to check in on them regularly are the most vulnerable.

All of the Neighbourhood Houses have been working since last summer to make climate safety plans that fit the needs of the people they serve. In the west end, that means many seniors — a population especially vulnerable to heat.

With that in mind, staff at Gordon are now trained to recognize signs of heat exhaustion. They mobilize to phone the 300 seniors on their contact list during heat waves. 

Realizing that many may lack the mobility or means to get to city-operated cooling centres, Gordon and several other Neighbourhood Houses acquired buses last year. The next time temperatures hit dangerous levels, said Powlowski, they'll be able to pick people up at home and take them to shopping malls to cool down during the hottest part of the day.

Gordon House and other groups have also been working with the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health to distribute "cool kits" in the neighbourhood — plastic bins filled with supplies like spray bottles, cooling gel packs and heat safety pamphlets printed in multiple languages. 

As well, plans are underway to create a route down nearby Comox Street to air-conditioned Denman Place Mall. They've dubbed it the "Comox Coolway," and are placing coolers, benches and misting stations along the street. Volunteers from Gordon House's network of neighbours will keep the coolers stocked with cold drinks and other supplies. 

"Our community, we find, is very, very close-knit and more than happy to help whenever we put the call out," said Powlowski. 

In her view, these kinds of robust networks are what's needed to face a future that climate science says will bring longer, hotter heat waves and stronger, more frequent storms. As fall approaches, the possibility of heavy rain, extreme cold or power outages that could knock out elevators in the tall towers surrounding Gordon House are on Powlowski's mind.

"The volatility, I think, is what worries me, worries our team," she said.

As the Neighbourhood Houses work to develop their safety plans, Powlowski knows that flexibility and creativity will be key. 

"I think the more we can look to the experience of other communities and prepare as much as we can, hopefully the more we can keep people safe when it matters." 

Rachel Sanders

Reader feedback

Last week, What on Earth? reader James Foley wrote in responding to a piece on floating solar installations and proposed another place for massive solar arrays: "All across the country are large areas of cleared land running between cities designed for the sole purpose of carrying electricity. Hydro corridors are everywhere, with a large, 100-metre swath of cleared space directly underneath them. Space that is regularly brushed to keep vegetation down. One would think lining these spaces with solar panels is a no-brainer."

As it turns out, other readers concur. 

Michael Ritchie: "James Foley has a great point about power lines and solar mining. Hiding in plain sight."

Jennifer Sanges: "I completely agree with James Foley's suggestion on solar panels along hydroelectric corridors. He's completely right in stating that it's a no-brainer; and just to tease out the finer points of it, the infrastructure is standing right there! As well, the shade underneath closely fit solar panels would restrict undergrowth."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News recently launched a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. Climate solutions like electric vehicles, home retrofits and solar panels are investments, requiring upfront funds to reap the rewards later. But not every Canadian has that kind of cash. This week on What On Earth, we look at ways we can help those with less cut their own emissions and save money. What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: What the droughts reveal

Many parts of the world have experienced drought this summer, as evidenced by rivers from the Loire (France) to the Po (Italy) to the Yangtze (China) running dry. In addition to producing some truly surreal imagery, the drying of rivers has huge implications for people's drinking water, shipping routes and hydroelectric power. The emptying of rivers and lakes has also uncovered some bizarre objects long buried underwater. 

In the central Spanish province Caceres, for example, low water levels have exposed the Dolmen of Guadalperal, a stone circle in the Valdecanas reservoir that has been called "the Spanish Stonehenge." Along the Yangtze near the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing (see photo below), people have found a trio of Buddhist statues believed to be 600 years old. 

Low water levels on the Danube near the Serbian port town of Prahovo have revealed more than 20 German warships sunk during the Second World War. Earlier this summer, about 3,000 people living near the northern Italian village of Borgo Virgilio, close to the city of Mantua, were evacuated after a 450-kg (1,000-pound) Second World War bomb was discovered in the low-running waters of the River Po.

More chillingly, the receding waters of Lake Mead, along the Colorado River near Boulder City, Nev., have revealed numerous human remains. The causes of death are still a mystery, but there is rampant speculation that it might be tied to organized crime in Las Vegas going back many decades.

A river undergoing a major drought.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Coasts need living shorelines to stave off erosion, says P.E.I. researcher

A shoreline.
(Submitted by Alistair Ozon)

Researchers and watershed co-ordinators are working together to mitigate coastal erosion on P.E.I. using a set of powerful natural solutions to create what they call living shorelines. 

Living shorelines harness plants that naturally grow on P.E.I. to trap sand and topsoil and prevent the coast from eroding, says Erin Nelson, a climate research assistant with TransCoastal Adaptations, a centre for nature-based solutions that's based at Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia.

"The purpose of my research is to try to have homeowners and property owners steer away from the hard armour and to really consider using natural methods," she said. 

In Nelson's words, "hard armour" refers to rigid material placed along the shoreline to deflect waves away from the site, including "unnatural stones and unnatural material" such as concrete or steel.

She said the practice can end up hurting adjacent properties, as well as being only a short-term solution for the property that a town or landowner is trying to protect. As it deflects the oncoming waves, hard armour causes seawater to hit neighbouring waterfront land even harder. 

Living shorelines, on the other hand, absorb the waves, muting the force of the water along the entire shore.

A project implemented at Tea Hill Park last year is demonstrating the benefits of living shorelines. Dead plant matter — in the form of hay bales — is making a difference there.

"The hay bales have started being covered by sand, which means that it's trapping some of that sediment and helping create a more gradual slope from the land into the ocean," said Kaylee Busniuk, watershed co-ordinator with the Stratford Area Watershed Improvement Group.

P.E.I.'s history of deforestation weakened shorelines and made them more susceptible to coastal erosion, environmental researchers believe. 

"If you take away the trees, then it takes away those roots that are holding the soil in place," said Katie Sonier, an environmental sustainability co-ordinator with the Town of Stratford.

Busniuk said planting older trees along the coast is ideal because they already have an established root system and will grow to maturity more quickly.

"If people do have the funds, they can purchase trees that are already a few years old," she said.

There are other ways homeowners can reduce shoreline erosion. Nelson warns people against mowing right up to the beach on shoreline properties because lawn grass has relatively shallow roots. That can lead to overhanging vegetation and the crumbling of coastal slopes.

She also said to "make sure you are building your sheds or houses far back so that your property or infrastructure won't be at risk for erosion."

Sonier said the need for shoreline solutions will only grow in the decades to come.

"Through climate change, when we have higher tides and increased storms, the wave action is much stronger and it takes away more of the coast than just the natural process would," said Sonier. 

Busniuk noted that weather pattern changes are resulting in a lot less sea-ice cover in the winter, "and that allows waves to batter the shoreline throughout the whole winter." 

When ice is thick enough to build up along the shore, it acts as a buffer for the energy of the waves, boosting protection along the shoreline. 

Nelson of TransCoastal Adaptations would like to see governments on the Island pushing nature-based solutions as opposed to the hard-armour approaches of the past. 

Alistair Ozon, water co-ordinator with the City of Charlottetown's environment and sustainability department, says more attention is being paid to the environmental aspects of planning.

Ozon says the city's new integrated community sustainability plan (ICSP), set to be released next year, will include living shorelines as a potential solution to coastal erosion.

Tharsha Ravichakaravarthy

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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