Think of Canada, and you picture snow-covered sidewalks, clear streams of freezing snow water and a thick cover of towering greens. With average summer temperatures in the range of low 20 degrees, what Canadian consider a breezy summer day is perhaps a nippy November afternoon for us. However, a raging unprecedented heatwave in western Canada, along with the north-western region in the US, has changed that.
Last week, a little-known small hill town of Lytton in British Columbia province emerged as one of the hottest places on earth. Last Monday, Lytton saw temperatures rising to 47.9 C, and the following day, the mercury reached a new high at 49.6C. Lytton falls at 50 degrees N latitude and its normal temperature range at this time of the year remains between 31 to 35 C.
Unsurprisingly, this steep 12-degree rise in temperatures has put people’s lives in peril.
HEATWAVE TRIGGERS A HEALTH CRISIS
While Lytton is the worst hit by this heatwave, its ripples are being felt all over the British Columbia province. The province’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said they had recorded 486 deaths in a little over a week, whereas the average number of deaths in this timeframe is typically around 165.
In Vancouver, the biggest town of British Columbia, 98 deaths have been reported and a majority of victims were about 70. Since hot weather is not typically seen in the region, most residents don’t have air-conditioning in their homes, which leaves them vulnerable.
Hyperthermia, a condition where body temperatures shoot abnormally high owing to a failure to deal with heat, has been found to be the underlying cause of a majority of these deaths. The gravity of the situation has been compounded by the fact that the heatwave rages not only through the day but also at night.
This lack of respite from the heat during night time is what experts believe is more detrimental to people’s health and well-being.
To help the residents cope with the heat, air-conditioned centres are being set up in Vancouver and people are lining up to seek respite from the scorching heat and be able to work in peace. Others are checking into air-conditioned hotels to ride out the heatwave.
WILDFIRES MAKING A BAD SITUATION WORSE
An already bad situation has been made worse by wildfires sweeping through the town of Lytton. The heatwave-sparked wildfire burnt 90% of this small town, wreaking havoc on property, infrastructure and claiming lives.
The Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman was quoted by the BBC as saying that he was lucky to be able to save his life as a wall of fire engulfed the entire town.
Residents fled their hometown with the bare minimum in hand, some getting away with nothing more than their pets and cars. Considering the damage caused by the fire, most won’t have much to return to.
“The whole town was engulfed within 15 minutes. There won’t be very much left of Lytton,”he added.
IT’S NOT JUST BRITISH COLUMBIA
This heatwave has swept through most of western Canada as well as the northwest USA. Oregon, Washington, Seattle, Portland have all witnessed a record-breaking rise in temperatures, with mercury rushing past the 46 C mark in many areas. Many deaths tied to the rise in heat have been reported in all of these areas as well.
Heat warnings remain for several parts of states like Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. While there is hope that temperature will cool in places like British Columbia, Oregon and western Washington within this week, the interior regions will continue to simmer.
WHAT CAUSED THIS HEATWAVE?
The heatwave has been triggered by what meteorologists describe as a high-pressure dome building over the Northwest made worse by human-induced climate change. The increasing frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events is making it clearer that centuries of fossil fuel burning and blatant disregard for scientific warnings have brought us in the thick of a climate emergency.
The mountain ranges along the Pacific coast have played a key role in the making of this disastrous heatwave. The receding snow and ice cover has caused the soil on the mountains to warm up unimpeded. A study carried out in 2015 has established that the warming of surfaces increases with elevation.
These warmer mountains have contributed significantly to the high-pressure heat dome that triggered these extreme heat conditions along the Pacific coast. As the dry air rushed down the mountain slopes and toward the ocean, it created a pressure cooker of sorts that sent temperatures soaring to unparalleled highs.
This heatwave, and the accompanying wildfires, are neither the first nor last. They stand in a long line of natural disasters brought upon by our reckless handling of the environment, and the ones yet to come will only get more severe.