North America is suffering from killer heat. June was the hottest month on record, and the record-breaking heat spread to multiple regions of the United States and Canada, where all-time record daily temperature was broken for a whopping three days in a row.
North America was 1.2 degrees Celsius (34.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1991-2020 average in June, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) -- and it showed. It was also the second warmest June on record for Europe Copernicus, the EU's Earth observation program, produces its data for world temperatures from computer-generated analyses, using billions of measurements from satellites, aircraft, and weather stations.
"These heatwaves are not happening in a vacuum. They are happening in a global climate environment that is warming and which makes them more likely to occur," C3S climate scientist Julien Nicolas told AFP. “They are just the latest examples of a trend that’s projected to continue into the future and is tied to the warming of our climate.”
A series of unusually hot days are usually referred to as an extreme heat event or a heatwave. They are more than uncomfortable and can lead to illness and death, especially among older adults and the very young. Because of climate change, they are occurring more frequently, are more intense, and are lasting longer than they did in the past. In Oregon alone, heatwaves killed 107 people, and the number is unfortunately expected to rise in the following weeks -- many found alone without air conditioning or a fan. In Washington state, 57 deaths were reported, 13 of which were in Seattle. In British Columbia, 486 sudden deaths occurred during the heat, triple the usual number. To make matters even worse, temperatures are rising year after year.
“Every decade the world has increased the rate of greenhouse gas emissions and that has increased the rate of warming. So, of course, heat records are being broken more frequently,” Friederike Otto of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University told the BBC. “People rarely drop dead on the street, but die quietly in their poorly insulated and un-air-conditioned homes.”
The heatwave stretching from the US state of Oregon to Canada’s Arctic territories was blamed on high-pressure ridge trapping warm air in the region. Temperatures in cities of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington reached levels not seen since record-keeping began in 1940, according to the National Weather Service.
On Monday, Portland had 46ºC (115 Fahrenheit), and Seattle 42ºC (108 Fahrenheit), while Vancouver on the Pacific coast registered 30ºC (86 Fahrenheit). Nordic countries were also affected. Kevo, in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, recorded 33.6ºC (92.5 Fahrenheit), the hottest day since 1914, said the local STT news agency
Michael Reeder, a professor of meteorology at Australia’s Monash University, told the BBC the events on the European and North American continents were linked. A tropical low in the western Pacific, near Japan, had disturbed the atmosphere, creating ripples around the hemisphere. “It’s like plucking a guitar string. The disturbance propagated along the jet stream,” Reeder said.
Canada issued alerts for British Columbia, Alberta, and parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. The US National Weather Service issued a similar warning, asking people to "stay in air-conditioned buildings, avoid strenuous outdoor activities, drink plenty of water, and check on family members.”
Schools and Covid-19 vaccination centers closed in the Vancouver area due to the heatwave. Officials set up temporary water fountains and misting stations on street corners and stores ran out of portable air conditioners and fans. Cities in Canada and the US opened emergency cooling centers and outreach workers handed out water.
“We are in the midst of the hottest week British Columbians have ever experienced, and there are consequences to that, disastrous consequences for families and for communities," British Columbia Premier John Horgan told a news conference. "How we get through this extraordinary time is by hanging together," he said.
The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change calls countries to limit the increase in global temperatures at "well below" two degrees Celsius, and 1.5 degrees Celsius if possible. Human activity has driven global temperatures up about 1 degree Celsius so far – which could potentially reach 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. At this rate, staying within the climate objective seems increasingly unlikely.