By Dr Gurinder Kaur*
In the last week of June, an extreme heat wave has killed at least 600 people in Canada. Of those killed, 486 were from British Columbia alone. Most of the dead were elderly people living alone. Generally, the weather in British Columbia is not too hot but very pleasant during the summer months. The average temperature here is close to 20 to 25 degree Celsius, that is why people are not tolerant of heat. The weather is cold for most of the year, so people do not have air conditioning or ventilation in their homes. As a result, most people have died from suffocation in extreme heat. Some people have also died due to heat wave in the other Canadian states of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec. The exact number of deaths is not yet known. The sudden rise in temperature in Canada has alerted all the countries of the world that climate change will not come in the distant future but in the present they are facing adversity of climate change in the form of natural disasters. On June 29, Lytton, a small town in the Canadian province of British Columbia, had a record-smashing temperature of 49.6 degree Celsius. The town is located on 50 degree latitude north of the equator, while the temperature in Delhi, the capital of India, was 43 degree Celsius on the same day, which is located 28 degree latitude on the north of equator. In addition, Lytton’s temperature has been higher than that of the southwestern states of the United States. The average June temperature in the town of Lytton hovered around 24-25 degree Celsius, but on June 29, 2021, it doubled, which is responsible for deaths.
Northwestern cities in Canada as well as the United States are experiencing heat waves these days. Portland and Seattle experienced record-smashing temperatures of 46 degree Celsius and 42 degree Celsius respectively. The northwestern cities of Canada and the United States, such as Vancouver, Surrey, Seattle, and Portland, typically have temperatures of 11 to 22 degree Celsius in summer, so their residents do not even need fans. All these cities are known for their pleasant weather. Eleven states in the northwestern United States have been hit by drought due to low rainfall and rising temperatures. Water is declining rapidly in reservoirs and the risk of wildfires due to drought is also increasing. With the rise of global warming, all kinds of natural disasters are on the rise.The Arctic circle region also experienced a record temperature of 48 degree Celsius in the last week of June. Thus, above-average temperatures in the northern region indicate an increasing influx of heat waves.
What is a ‘heat wave’? In the plains, when the temperature crosses 40 degree Celsius or 5 to 6 degree Celsius above the average temperature, the winds blowing there are called ‘heat waves’ and if it rises above 6 or 7 degrees Celsius above the average temperature, they are called ‘severe heat waves’. When the temperature in coastal areas rises from 37 degree Celsius and in mountainous areas 30 degree Celsius by 5 degree Celsius, those areas are considered to be under the influence of heat waves. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the arrival of heat waves in major US cities has been growing rapidly since the 1960s. In the 1960s, there were two heat waves every year, but in the 2010s the number increased to six. In recent years, the average heatwave in major urban areas has been about four days long. This is about a day longer than the average heatwave in the 1960s. The average heat wave season across the 50 major US cities is 47 days longer now than it was in the 1960s. According to a study by Stephen Leah, millions of people in the United States could experience extreme heat in the next 20 years. The ‘heat wave’ of June 2021 has broken all the previous records. In many places the temperature during the heatwave is 10 to 20 degree Celsius higher than the average temperature.
Richard Bann, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center, has explained that the heatwave was caused by two pressure systems,one coming from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and other from James Bay and Hudson Bay in Canada. Over the last few decades, temperatures in the western part of the Pacific Ocean have been rising faster than those in the eastern hemisphere, causing warmer winds to blow instead of cold air coming from the ocean toward the earth. According to the organization, such a situation does not occur often, it occurs only once in two or three decades.
An IPCC 2014 report made it clear that unless greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly reduced, no country in the world would be spared from the adverse effects of global warming in the near future. Climate change will gradually take over all the places in the world from small islands to large continents, and from poor to rich countries. The average temperature of the earth is now 1 degree Celsius higher than the Pre-Industrial Revolution Period. The years succeeding 2014 have been the warmest years. The year 2020 has been the second warmest year so far despite the Corona pandemic and the La-Nina process as greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere continue to heat it up.
According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the temperatures in the upper 2000 meters of the ocean hit a record high in 2020. The five hottest years for the upper ocean have all occurred since 2015. About 90 per cent of the heat generated by human activities is absorbed by the oceans, which in turn increases ocean temperatures. Rising ocean water temperatures are affecting a variety of natural climatic processes, such as El-Nino, La-Nina, and ocean currents. Rising ocean water temperatures are increasing the number of cyclones and hurricanes and the depth of their impact. Rising temperatures are also affecting seafood systems, leading to a shortage of nutrients for marine animals. As a result, coastal areas are becoming more vulnerable to changing climate as well as ocean-related natural disasters, with sea levels rising rapidly as temperatures rise. As many as 237 million people in six countries (China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and India) on the Asian continent will be affected by floods each year by 2030, as many people in these countries live in coastal areas.
The issue of global warming has long been a topic of discussion at various international conferences, but developed countries have been slow to take it seriously because they thought that they will save their countries and people from the evils of the global warming with their money power, but now it is clear to them that measures will have to be taken to prevent it.
The Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States have expressed concern over the heat wave in Canada and the United States and called for precautionary measures. The rise in temperature is due to the emission of greenhouse gases, mainly from use of coal and oil. That is why all the countries of the world need to generate energy from natural sources like wind, water, and sun without wasting time so that the emission of greenhouse gases can be reduced rapidly. Public transport systems should be made as efficient as in European countries. New brands of cars should be replaced by public transport (trains, trams, and buses). Forest cover should be increased rapidly. Every country should refrain from cutting down dense forests and planting commercial crops in the name of economic development because commercial crops sometimes do not match the natural resources such as availability of wind and water of the region. Secondly, they cannot absorb as much greenhouse gases as trees do. Even when planting forests or trees, only local varieties of trees of the area should be planted as they are suitable for conserving the natural resources of the area and not any tree should be planted under any kind of commercial calculations. In the state of California in the United States, Eucalyptus trees are planted all over the places although these trees are suitable for swampy areas, not drought-prone areas. One of the reasons responsible for drought conditions in the California state of the United States is the planting of Eucalyptus trees in place of trees suitable to the local climatic conditions.
We must also change our living, eating, and drinking habits to control the rise in temperature. The animals we raise to eat meat are warming the environment by releasing carbon dioxide as well as other greenhouse gases like methane. There is also a growing trend among people to keep pets (dogs, cats) which is an unnatural phenomenon. In addition to releasing carbon dioxide and methane gases, these pets are also unbalancing the natural food chains and environmental management. To avoid the adverse effects of heat waves, we need to build homes, and buildings of offices and other workplaces in such a way that they require minimal energy to keep them cool and warm. Newly built large numbers of buildings with exterior walls made of glass need air conditioning and hot air to keep them cool and warm, which play an important role in raising the temperature. Leaders and young people of all the countries need to be guided by this ‘heat wave’ in Canada and the United States and the sudden deaths caused by this ‘heat wave’ in which the elderly were among the dead. Leaders of all the countries should make such plans for the reduction of greenhouse gases at the Parties Conference — 26 in Glasgow and implement them so seriously that they can really control the rising temperature. Young people should also rise above the blind race of crass individualism and acute materialism and not leave the old parents to the mercy of nature.
*Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala