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COMMENTARY: Learning from the burning – A tale of two summers

2018: The Summer the World Changed The heat waves in 2018 were relentless. Japan experienced 41˚ Celsius in some cities with humidex readings as high as 48˚C. Record temperatures killed at least 29 in South Korea. The June heatwave in eastern Canada

2018: The Summer the World Changed

The heat waves in 2018 were relentless. Japan experienced 41˚ Celsius in some cities with humidex readings as high as 48˚C. Record temperatures killed at least 29 in South Korea. The June heatwave in eastern Canada resulted in more than 93 deaths in Quebec. Heat was matched by a lack of rain in the Canadian west with the worst drought in 50 years in parts of the southern Prairies. 

The summer of 2018 was an object lesson on the direct climatic connection between water and its diametric and symbolic opposite – fire. If you don’t have one, then you get the other. What set the summer of 2018 apart were the wildfires and the endless smoke that spread across five provinces and two territories for weeks on end.

But this didn’t happen just in Canada, the rapidly moving wildfires in Greece killed 91 people in July at the same time Europe was fighting wildfires from Portugal to the Swedish tundra north of the Arctic Circle and across the normally soggy Welsh mountains. Australia was fighting unprecedented winter bushfires. And California had at least eight deaths in its most severe fire season ever – which even included a “fire tornado.”

And it just kept coming. Fires were also becoming bigger, hotter and faster. While constituting barely 3.5 per cent of all the world’s wildfires, megafires were nonetheless responsible for 95 per cent of the fire damage. The link to global change was clear. Because of breakthroughs in the science of climate attribution, it was determined during the current decade the combined effect of anthropogenic and natural climate forcing made extreme fire risk events in western Canada one-and-a-half to six times as likely compared to a climate unaffected by human influence. If you were looking for a smoking gun to confirm climate change, the summer of 2018 was it. 

Prominent climate scientists began saying their worst fears were being realized. The feedback they cautiously projected might further accelerate climate impacts over a longer time span were kicking in far earlier than expected. Many claimed 2018 may be a turning point in human history. Several offered it was in this year humanity may have crossed an invisible threshold into a new and dangerous climate regime in the Northern Hemisphere and we have now entered an era of more severe, if not permanent, climate disruption. 

After this summer that wasn’t, with its reports of more than 560 forest fires burning in British Columbia, thousands on evacuation notices, and smoke that impacted most of western Canada and the northern United States well into autumn, many were thinking about where we are headed and how fast we may get there. Getting there didn’t take long, however. Only three years.

2021: How Could We Not See This Coming?

Heat waves now annually kill people by the thousands in concentrated urban areas all over the world. Rising levels of urban heat are now seen to constitute the single greatest climate-related threat to human health globally. We don’t have to wait for the future for this. It’s happening now.

Under the June heat dome, roughly 700 people died of heat stress in the Greater Vancouver area alone. Only a few days into July, 300 all-time high temperature records had been broken in B.C., 125 more in Alberta. These records were not just broken; they were being shattered by as much as 5°C to 8°C. By Canada Day, four million British Columbians and 10 million people in western Canada had been exposed to a major extreme weather event. 

Temperatures reached 49.6°C in Kamloops, B.C. At 50˚C, almost everything becomes more combustible. The fire that destroyed Lytton was a top story around the world. The Guardian in Great Britain ran a headline that read Canadian Inferno: Northern Heat Exceeds Worst-Case Climate Models. Record temperatures of nearly 50° exceeded the worst-case scenarios of existing climate models not just in Canada but globally. 

What we face is not over. In June, there were 5,770 high temperatures records broken in North America, most of them in the last few days of the month. Drought has spread from Vancouver Island to Quebec. In many places, crops are starting to fail. 

Then there is the prospect of more lightning sparking wildfire. On July 2, there were 170 new fires in B.C. alone. Then suddenly there were 200. And don’t forget the pyroculumonimbus clouds that form over sources of heat like hot wildfires. Pyrocumulonimbus fire clouds sparked 710,117 lightning strikes in 15 hours across B.C. between 3 p.m. on June 30 and 6 a.m. on July 1. 

In the face of extreme events like these, systems breakdown. People discover to their horror they can lose everything in 15 minutes. While climate deniers keep denying, unprepared governments prevaricate, emergency services falter, transportation routes become unreliable, people grow afraid and their mental and physical health suffer. At a certain point, displaced people run out of places to go. 

Welcome to the future. 

Bob Sandford holds the Global Water Futures Chair in Water & Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment & Health. Bob lives in Canmore, Alberta.