Quirks & Quarks

The year in climate change: Fires and heat-waves show things are heating up

'2018 is a year that will go down in history as a year of unprecedented extreme weather events'

'2018 is a year that will go down in history as a year of unprecedented extreme weather events'

California broke records with its wildfires this year for the largest fire by burned area and for the deadliest blaze. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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The biggest science story of the year is, and probably will be in years to come, climate change.  After all, it's a dangerous experiment with the whole planet that we're all participating in.  

We may be the last generation that can possibly stop the extreme effects of climate change. The next generations will just have to live with them.

The year of unprecedented extreme weather events

Merritt Turetsky, a Canada Research Chair and associate professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Guelph, said, "2018 is a year that will go down in history as a year of unprecedented extreme weather events. Many of these natural disasters are linked to climate change." 

Global temperatures continue to rise  with 2018 almost guaranteed to be the fourth warmest year on record after 2016, 2015, and 2017. 

A boy and girl dunk their heads in a water fountain during a record-breaking heatwave in Montreal in July 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

This past summer saw record breaking heat waves around the world  in Montreal, Ireland, and in Colorado. 

And with the heat, came unprecedented wildfires in Portugal, Greece, the Arctic, British Columbia, and the most deadly wildfires on record in California. 

The U.S. climate report that President Trump doesn't believe

The Friday after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, the White House released its Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

Turetsky said this report represents thousands of hours of scientists evaluating the state of the published scientific literature.

"It really represents our best understanding of how climate change is occurring today across North America and how this is playing out in homes and regions right across the continent, and more importantly how it's already affecting the U.S. economy."

According to the report, the U.S. is already seeing economic impacts from climate change in agriculture, tourism, and fisheries. 

The air quality as the result of the wildfires in California was so bad this year, Darius Philon of the Los Angeles Chargers had to breathe from an oxygen tank during their NFL game against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland, California. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

"Impacts to these types of businesses is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars per year. That's a huge chunk out of the U.S. economy," said Turetsky.

She said not only is this climate assessment relevant to Canada, since we share two borders with the U.S., but that it probably underestimates the kinds of climate impacts that are already playing out across Canada.

"We know that permafrost thaw is already causing billions of dollars in damage to roads, to pipelines, to airport infrastructure — these are all costs that need to be paid by Canadians," said Turetsky.

Climate change is already costing us said Turetsky, and the longer we delay curbing our emissions, the more it's going to cost. 

Hothouse Earth — What could happen

Another sobering moment for Turetsky was the release this year of a study that's become known as the "Hothouse Earth" paper. 

"The paper stated that there are a number of important feedbacks — these are issues where climate is affecting the ecology, the environment, in a way that then can trigger more climate change," said Turetsky. "We call this a positive feedback."

Several forest fires were raging the the Arctic in Sweden for weeks in July 2018 as a result of hot and dry weather. (MAJA SUSLIN/AFP/Getty Images)

These positive feedback loops are not represented in current climate models. "And if they start to really play out in terms of climate impacts, they could cause very abrupt climate changes. And so they really can be thought of as game-changers."

Nevertheless, Turetsky remains hopeful. 

"I'm optimistic that we can stave off or prevent the worst consequences of climate change."

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