'We have to start getting used to it': Record-breaking temperatures heating up the globe

No better time than during a global heat wave to take a closer look at the world's changing climate, for which record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather are the "new normal," experts say.

From Siberia to Africa to North America, it's been unusually hot

A volunteer tries to cool down as she takes a break in a flood-affected area of Kurashiki, Japan, last weekend. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

By July 15, at least 70 people in Quebec had died of heat-related complications as temperatures climbed to the mid-30s in some parts of the province, with humidex values into the mid-40s.

Similar sweltering temperatures have been felt all over the world.

In the past two weeks, from California to Oman to Siberia, temperatures have soared, shattering records. Here's just a small sample:

  • Death Valley National Park, Calif.: 52 C (July 8)
  • Ouargla, Algeria: The highest reliable recorded temperature of 51 C (July 5)
  • Northern Siberia: Consecutive days with forecast above 30 C (July 9–16)
  • Chino, Calif.: Daytime record of 48.9 C (July 7)
  • Tajimi, Japan: Record-setting temperature of 40.7 (July 17)

The good news? This isn't anything climatologists didn't expect.

The bad news? This isn't anything climatologists didn't expect.

And we'd better adapt to it.

"This is unfortunately our new normal," said Ahira Sanchez-Lugo, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information.

A woman cools down in a water fountain as she beats the heat in Montreal on July 2. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

As carbon dioxide (CO2) levels continue to rise in the atmosphere, Earth's temperature continues to rise along with them. Since 1880, the average global temperature has increased by about 0.8 C.

This warming is exacerbated by humans as we continue to pump more CO2 into the atmosphere and this, in turn, upsets Earth's delicate balance. What results is a swing in climate, with more extremes such as droughts, heat waves and flooding.

And that's important to note: it's not all about warming; it's about the dangerous extremes.

Earth's fever

"When it comes to extreme heat, we can say the odds of extreme heat or heat waves have been significantly increased by climate change," said Clare Nullis, spokesperson for the World Meteorological Organization.

"We have to start getting used to it."

On Wednesday, NOAA released its Global Climate Report for the month of June — the fifth warmest on record (1.06 C above the 20th century average). 

"Four of six continents had a June temperature that ranked among the seven warmest Junes since continental records began in 1910," the report says.

People take a dip during a heat wave in Stockholm, Sweden. (Hossein Salmanzadeh/Reuters)

And while the meteorological summer (June 1 to September 1) has been hot, it's unlikely 2018 will surpass 2016 as the the hottest year on record. That was also the year with one of the most powerful El Ninos, a warming in the Pacific Ocean that has worldwide repercussions, including higher temperatures and greater precipitation in various regions.

This year the world is experiencing a La Nina, the opposite of an El Nino, which actually causes cooling. The temperatures from January to May 2018 broke the record for a La Nina year.

Despite the fact 2018 is unlikely to break the 2016 record, Sanchez-Lugo says the trend is undeniable.

"On average, we're breaking records every four years since 1980," she said. "Before that it was every 13 years."

Not even 'close to normal'

The last time Earth experienced a year with below average temperatures was 1976.

The warming trend has seen rising temperatures primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. 

David Phillips, Environment Canada's senior climatologist, said across the country, the average summertime temperature has increased by 1.5 C above the 1961-1990 average. Winter is even more dramatic with a 3.4 C rise.

The warming trend isn't a smooth line upward. Phillips points to Toronto as an example. In 2016, there were 36 days above 30 C, compared to just nine in 2017, and 17 so far this year.

"It's not just a dramatic warming up," Phillips said of climate change. "It's ... a slow motion, and that's why it's so easy to ignore."

But none of those three years has "even been close to normal," he said. "And that's the problem."

And while no isolated weather event can be linked directly to climate change, extremes are to be expected in a warming world, experts say.

"We cannot point to an individual event, such as the heat wave in Canada, and say, 'OK, that was definitely caused by climate change,'" Nullis said. "But what we can say is, 'Well, that is consistent with what we would expect under climate change.'"

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. 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.