“This weekend’s scorching weather around the world”

A pedestrian cools off in water misters along the sidewalk during a heat wave in Las Vegas on Friday. Climate scientists say 2023 is on track to be the hottest year since records began. (Ronda Churchill/AFP/Getty Images)

Excessive heat warnings remained in effect on Sunday for people around the world, from the United States, to Europe, and Japan.

The heat wave that’s spreading across a swath of the U.S. from Oregon, down the West Coast, and into the Southwest including Texas through Alabama, is unusual, said Zack Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md.

There’s a mass of high pressure air sitting like a dome “parked” over the affected areas and it’s deflecting any rain and storm systems that could provide relief to more than 100 million Americans under heat warnings and cautions, said Taylor.

Phoenix, Ariz., is centred squarely under the heat dome, and the temperature was expected to climb to 47 C on Sunday, matching the high on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Temperatures in Arizona’s capital have been at or above 43 C every day for 16 consecutive days, nearing the 1974 record of 18 days in a row for that level of heat.

Some of the estimated 200 cooling centres in metro Phoenix planned to extend their weekend hours, and emergency rooms were ready to treat people with heat-related illnesses.

In Nevada, an intense heat wave threatens to break Las Vegas’s all-time record high of 47.2 C this weekend. Misters have been set up along the Las Vegas Strip to provide some relief.

A man cools off in misters along the Las Vegas Strip on Thursday. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

The National Weather Service says the extreme heat will continue through the middle of this week. Forecasters have warned people to take precautions to protect themselves from the heat, such as cancelling outdoor activities during the day.

High temperatures that have already sparked wildfires in Spain and Croatia were also being felt in central parts of Europe, including Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic — and with another heat wave in the forecast, more high temperatures were expected across the continent in the coming days.

On Spain’s La Palma Canary Island, officials ordered more than 4,000 people to evacuate their homes on Saturday because of a raging wildfire.

The fire, which has destroyed at least 20 homes, coincides with a heat wave that has persisted for nearly a week in southern and central Europe.

Italy issued hot weather red alerts for 16 cities on Sunday, with meteorologists warning that temperatures will hit record highs across southern Europe in the coming days.

Spain, Italy and Greece have been experiencing scorching temperatures for several days already, damaging agriculture and leaving tourists scurrying for shade.

Forecasters say a new weather system with extreme heat pushed into southern Europe from North Africa on Sunday and could lift temperatures above 45 C in parts of Italy early this week.

“We need to prepare for a severe heat storm that, day after day, will blanket the whole country,” Italian weather news service Meteo reported on Sunday.

“In some places ancient heat records will be broken.” 

In parts of eastern Japan, highs of 38 and 39 C were expected on Sunday and Monday, with forecasters warning temperatures could break records.

A traffic worker stands guard on Sunday at the entrance to a flooded underpass in Akita, Japan. (STR/JIJI Press/AFP via Getty Images)

Japan issued heat alerts on Sunday to tens of millions of people in 20 of the country’s 47 prefectures due to high temperatures, while torrential rain pummelled other regions, the AFP news agency reported.

Flash flooding hit the city of Akita in northern Japan on Sunday, leaving one person dead and four injured.

In South Korea, days of heavy rain have triggered flash floods and landslides. Rescuers on Sunday pulled nine bodies from a flooded tunnel where around 15 vehicles were trapped in muddy water, officials said.

A total of 37 people have died and thousands have been evacuated since July 9, when heavy rain started pounding South Korea’s central regions.

After Earth’s hottest week on record, extreme weather surprises everyone — even climate scientists

The heat has been unprecedented, and extreme weather, from wildfires to floods, are ravaging various corners of the world.

Data suggests last week was the hottest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Temperatures have soared across much of southern Europe and the southern United States, while powerful rain storms led to flooding in Vermont, India, Japan — and Montreal on Thursday.

At the same time, Canada has already surpassed the record for the total area burned in a wildfire season.

This follows the hottest June on record, with unprecedented sea surface temperatures and record low Antarctic sea ice coverage.

“There’s a lot of concern from the scientific community and a lot of catch up in the scientific community trying to understand these incredible changes we’re seeing at the moment,” said Michael Sparrow, head of the WMO’s world climate research program.

All this comes at the onset of El Niño, which is expected to further fuel the heat both on land and in the oceans, according to Prof. Christopher Hewitt, WMO’s director of climate services.

“We are in uncharted territory and we can expect more records to fall as El Niño develops further,” he said. “These impacts will extend into 2024.”

Global sea surface temperatures hit new records for the time of the year both in May and June, according to the WMO.

In Florida, for instance, the water temperature near Johnson Key was 36 Celsius, about 5 degrees warmer than normal this time of year, meteorologists said.

“As we go forward, we will see more extreme weather,” said Altaf Arain, a professor in the school of earth, environment and society at McMaster University and director of McMaster’s Centre for Climate Change.

While Arain isn’t entirely surprised by the surging temperatures, he said the idea of a “new normal” should be thrown out the window.

“It may not be fair to use that term because when you talk about the new normal, then you have to look at the time scale,” he said.

“We will have a new normal for the next decade. What about the following decade and the following decade? So would we keep on changing these normals? So I think this discussion should not be there.”

Experiencing the wildfire smoke in Ontario earlier this summer was a reminder that the effects of climate change are far reaching, he said. 

“The message you get is we are all in it together,” he said. “We all will be impacted, one way or the other.”

Despite the heat and extreme weather of recent weeks, the planet hasn’t necessarily reached a “tipping point” moment, said Nicholas Leach, a postdoctoral researcher in climate science at the University of Oxford.

“To the best of our knowledge these extreme weather events essentially will continue,” said Leach, who was a part of a team of scientists that examined the “statistically impossible” 2021 heatwave in B.C.

Canada’s all-time record was smashed that summer by nearly 5 Celsius, with a recorded high of 49.6 C in Lytton, B.C.

In looking over historical data from 1959 to to 2021, Leach’s study found that 31 per cent of Earth’s land surface has already experienced such statistically implausible heat.

These regions are spread all across the globe with no clear pattern, he said.

The conclusion? Other statistically improbable events are likely.

“Countries that traditionally haven’t seen really big jumps in their record, or particularly extreme events, shouldn’t be complacent about that and should start implementing these action plans and things that we know are effective at reducing mortality risk from heat waves,” he said.

Scientists are learning as events evolve, allowing for better forecasting and preparedness, said Vermont State Climatologist Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux. 

Her state experienced up to two months worth of rainfall within two days this week. The mass flooding resulted in damage to homes and properties and hundreds of people needing rescue.

Despite the storm being “very well-forecasted,” Dupigny-Giroux said, it was still surprising to see such an impact in river levels.

“Looking at some of the river record levels and seeing values that are like 10 feet above flood stage, that is just mind boggling,” she said. 

“Even if you had a model that predicted that, it’s still mind boggling to actually see that in real life.”

People are photographed at Sugar Beach in Toronto, on July 4, 2023. In response to this week’s heat alert, Toronto activated its Heat Relief Network, which includes cooling locations such as libraries, community centres, private malls and municipal pools. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

As summer heat waves intensify and advocates sound the alarm on the lack of protections for the most vulnerable populations, one extreme weather expert is calling for access to cooling to be treated as a human right.

Much of Ontario experienced a multi-day heat event this week, with the humidex reaching up to 40 C in some areas. The planet’s average temperature hit new records in the last few days, rising to an unofficial high of 17.18 C on Tuesday and Wednesday, breaking Monday’s short-lived record of 17.01 C, according to the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer.

Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, has sought to bring attention to the need for greater heat adaptation as Canada is set to experience higher daily temperatures and longer heat waves under climate change.

Feltmate’s research projects that between 2050 and 2080, almost all major Canadian cities will see an increase in maximum daily temperature between 3 C and 5 C, and the number of summer days above 30 Cwill double, triple, or quadruple in some cases.

In Toronto, that looks like maximum daily temperatures increasing to around 38 C, and the number of days exceeding 30 C rising from 15 to 16 days per summer up to 60.

“We need to think of access to cooling as a fundamental human right because if we don’t make that provision literally people are going to die, Canadians are going to die, not just in the hundreds but potentially into the thousands,” said Feltmate. He pointed to extreme heat events that led to more than 600 deaths in B.C. in 2021 and more than 80 deaths in Quebec City in 2018.

“As hot as it is now, and [Wednesday] set a new global record for the planet in terms of overall temperature, things are going to get hotter going forward.”

Feltmate said there are approximately 500,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area who live in apartment buildings that are at least 40 years old and eight storeys or higher. If a major heat wave happened to coincide with an extended electricity outage, residents of those buildings could be without air conditioning, fans, elevator access or even water flow.

“The results could be lethal,” he said.

Avoiding those deadly situations requires immediate steps to reduce heat stress. Feltmate said that could look like backup electricity generation for a couple of days for all apartment buildings, or subsidies for small, portable air conditioners, similar to a new B.C. program offering such ACs to low-income households.

Awnings over windows, window glazing to limit direct sunlight, trees and vines planted in and around buildings to provide shade can all reduce the impact of heat on residential buildings, Feltmate said.

Improving insulation and airtightness can also cut heating and cooling costs, he said.

Municipalities should play a large part in improving cooling access, he said, in particular to mitigate the “heat-island effect,” in which urban areas are significantly warmer than surrounding areas. Dark and tarred buildings, roads and other infrastructure absorb and retain more heat from the sun than natural landscapes, contributing to warming between 3 and 5 C.

The heat-island effect could be combated with white, “cool” roofs or more trees and vegetation, among other design considerations.

But these actions require a combined response from all levels of government, particularly on the federal level, Feltmate said, as cities and towns would be better equipped to make such changes if directed by Ottawa.

Last week, Canada released its new national climate adaptation strategy, which will tie future federal infrastructure transfers to the provinces to projects that incorporate adaptation efforts.

One of the targets is for 80 per cent of health regions to have a plan to protect people from extreme heat by 2026, something officials said could include making sure there are adequate cooling centres available during heat waves. Another is the elimination of all heat-related deaths by 2040.

Some municipalities are getting ahead of the curve. Hamilton is poised to become one of Canada’s first municipalities to require landlords install air conditioning to ensure indoor temperatures don’t exceed 26 C, after an “adequate temperature” bylaw was passed by council in May.

Changes can’t come fast enough for people most vulnerable to extreme heat, such as those who live and work outside and are already bearing the brunt of climate change, advocates say.

Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers, called on Ontario to enact immediate emergency measures to protect the province’s farm workers from the heat, including sheltering and cooling periods, access to free water, shade requirements and shutting down farms in extreme crisis events.

He said many of those workers, who fear threat of deportation for speaking out, are facing hot working conditions in greenhouses and are experiencing headaches and near-fainting due to the heat, but have been expected to keep up the regular pace of work.

“It’s imperative the province enact steps and measures to protect all workers who have to endure this heat,” said Ramsaroop.

In a statement, provincial Labour Minister Monte McNaughton called Ontario’s farm workers “heroes” who are protected by health and safety laws, “regardless of their passport.

“As we experience increasing heat waves and the hazards of forest fire smoke, and a changing nature of outdoor work, we will not hesitate to take further action to protect those who put food on the table for families across our province,” he said. The Ministry of Labour added it conducts inspections to ensure employers are meeting health and safety standards and urged workers who feel unsafe to report their concerns.

In response to this week’s heat alert, Toronto activated its Heat Relief Network, which includes cooling locations such as libraries, community centres, private malls and municipal pools.

However, community worker and longtime advocate for the homeless, Diana Chan McNally, said many of those spaces are inappropriate for people experiencing homelessness, who may be subjected to harassment.

“Having an unhoused adult, for example, cool off in a children’s splash pad is obviously going to set off some alarm bells,” she said, criticizing the city for not having dedicated emergency cooling centres as it did in the past.

The City of Toronto said it “recognizes the need for additional services to help meet the complex needs of those living outdoors during heat warnings but the city continues to face significant financial pressures.”

Chan McNally said emergency weather will come in all seasons, so there needs to be a shift from thinking of seasonal spaces in the summer or winter to year-round, 24-7 dedicated emergency weather spaces.

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