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The Great Disruption — Heat Waves

Image Courtesy of U.S. National Weather Service

The Great Disruption – Part 3 – Heat Waves

This is the third part of a series on what Australian author Paul Gilding, in his 2018 book on the climate catastrophe, has called “The Great Disruption.” (Read Part 1, Part 2) Gilding’s thesis, and that of this series, is not that we are necessarily headed toward the end of the world, or even the end of civilization, but toward a significant disruption of our economic and social systems caused by the biosphere’s loss of much of its resilience, and large swaths of the planet becoming unproductive or uninhabitable. In this series, we’ll examine disruption caused by climate migration, flooding, droughts and other environmental shocks to the planetary system, and discuss how these impacts can overlap each other, disrupting many of global civilization’s functions.

The Heat Will Kill You First
— Title of a 2023 book by environmental writer Jeff Goodell

The remote mountain settlement of Lytton, British Columbia, home to about 250 people, essentially exploded on the evening of June 30, 2021. A wildfire that started just south of town, and was pushed north by 44 mph winds, swept through the entire community in minutes as residents fled with no time to collect their belongings or even warn others. The advancing fire was so powerful that water from volunteer firefighters’ hoses was blown back toward them; so hot that propane tanks detonated as it passed. Two residents were killed immediately, and ninety percent of Lytton’s homes and businesses were destroyed.

Similar wildfires recently have destroyed other towns, of course — Lahaina, Hawaii, and Paradise, California, come to mind — but the Lytton fire was directly connected to an extreme climatological event, the Western North America Heat Wave, that gripped the Pacific Northwest from late June through mid-July of 2021. During that time, regional temperatures ranged between 20ºF and 35ºF above seasonal norms. Temperature records were broken from Salem, Oregon, to the Yukon, and related unseasonal warming occurred as far east as Labrador. The day before the fire, Lytton’s thermometer reading of 121.3ºF — more than twice the area’s seasonal average of 52ºF — shattered Canada’s all-time heat record.

Climate scientists concluded that this temperature “anomaly,” change from normal, was a “1,000- year” weather event, made 150 times more likely by climate change. Ominously, an article in the prestigious scientific journal “Nature Climate Change” claimed that if global temperatures increase to around 2ºC above preindustrial averages — which will likely happen between 2035 and 2050 — such events could occur every ten years.

Unfortunately, the Lytton fire, along with many other wildfires sparked in the region, was just one consequence of the heat wave. The heat buckled roads and rail beds, forced business closures and cultural event cancellations and damaged crops and killed livestock, affecting national and global food markets. NOAA estimated the event caused $8.9 billion in damages in the U.S. alone.

More importantly, exposure to extreme heat killed around 1,400 people, about 800 in Canada, and the rest in the U.S., including 72 in metropolitan Portland, Oregon. As is so often the case with climate impacts, the most vulnerable people — the elderly, small children, unhoused persons who could not escape the heat — comprised the majority of the victims. Similarly, 15,000 people, mostly elderly, died in the Parisian heat wave of 2003 and, despite France’s subsequent efforts to ameliorate the situation, another 5,000 died from heat last summer.

So, there’s a taste of what we can expect a lot more of in the future — probably the near future — and have little or no control over, except for trying to shelter ourselves. There will be extensive heat waves, a lot of them, and they will be crazy hot. We won’t have much warning as to when and where they’ll strike — June? British Columbia? — and little or no control over the types or extent of the damage they wreak.

We can take some steps to protect ourselves from the direct effects of heat, of course. We can stay hydrated, avoid doing stupid stuff like jogging at midday, and remain indoors and hope a power outage doesn’t kill the air conditioning. But during my boyhood summers in the Midwest, a typical, infrequent heat wave lasted two to five days. Now, a two- to eight-week duration is not uncommon, especially in areas like the American Southwest. How do you avoid that?

Of course, global warming is all about rising temperatures, and frequent, intense heat waves are just another aspect of the Great Disruption — as are droughts, which we’ll discuss in the next post in this series.

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Contents

Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.