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Scientists Affirm Climate Change Connection as Western ‘Heat Dome’ Shatters Records

Pavement buckled, light rail power cables melted, all-time high temperature records fell, then fell again, and utilities in British Columbia and Alberta reported record electricity demand as a brutal “heat dome” brought broiling temperatures to western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest this week, prompting scientists to draw an immediate, obvious connection to climate change.

One U.S. news report had scientists agreeing that the burden of proof connecting heat waves to the climate crisis has shifted to the point where the question needn’t even be asked: if it’s unusually hot, even if it isn’t once-in-a-millennium hot, climate change is in the picture.

Throughout the last few days, weather offices across the region repeatedly updated their history books as temperatures rose—with Lytton, British Columbia setting an all-time national record at 47.9°C on Monday, then shattering it the next day with a high of 49.5°C, while Oregon and Washington State saw readings as high as 117°F. Temperatures yesterday hit 40.2°C in Grande Prairie, Alberta, 39.1°C in Jasper, 36.3°C in Hendrickson Creek, AB, and 38.1° in Nahanni Butte, Northwest Territories, an all-time record for the NWT, CBC says.

“There’s really no hyperbole strong enough for this,” Environment Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan told the national broadcaster. “We’re just flummoxed with how much these records are breaking,” and “we know this is going to be a killer event.”

With air conditioners flying off the shelves in a region that has rarely needed them in the past, BC Hydro reported a record peak in hourly electricity demand, at 7,972 megawatts, while the Alberta Electric System Operator recorded summer demand at an unprecedented 11,500 MW. Utilities were left to advise their customers to keep drapes and blinds closed, use small appliances rather than large ones, and avoid doing dishes right after dinner, in a bid to keep living space cooler or conserve power during peak periods.

But none of that was enough to hold off the deadly impacts Environment Canada’s Castellan had predicted. Vancouver police said they’d responded to 65 sudden death calls between Friday and Tuesday, a time span in which they would normally see three or four. RCMP in Burnaby, B.C. received more than 25 of the calls in a 24-hour period, many of them involving seniors.

“Police said it’s believed heat was a contributing factor in the majority of the deaths,” CBC writes. “The elderly, children, outdoor workers, homeless people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions are all at greater risk of heat-related illness and death.”

And, consistent with years of warnings about the health impacts of extreme heat, “the danger is intensified by the fact that nighttime lows are not dropping to normal levels, offering no relief and recovery time from the heat.”

In the U.S., Seattle and King County Public Health logged 41 heat-related emergency room visits on Saturday and 91 on Sunday, compared to a previous daily high of nine, the Washington Post says. “Patients were suffered symptoms ranging from vomiting and dizziness to syncope, a temporary loss of consciousness caused by falling blood pressure as people’s bodies are depleted of water.”

Between Friday and Sunday, the Post adds, Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland, saw 97 emergency department and urgent-care clinic visits for heat illness. A spokesperson said that was “an order of magnitude more than the number of visits the county usually sees in a weekend,” the paper writes, and almost half the volume it would usually see across all the summer months.

Portland also had its light rail service shut down Sunday, after the local streetcar company released a photo of a power cable with a hole burnt through it. “In case you’re wondering why we’re cancelling service for the day, here’s what the heat is doing to our power cables,” the agency tweeted. Pavement softened and expanded in Everson, Washington, creating rutting, buckling, and potholes in high-traffic areas, National Public Radio reports, while a concrete panel buckled along Interstate Highway 5 near Seattle, SFGate writes.

“There have been several instances of road impacts across Western Washington today, including along I-5 at times,” tweeted the Seattle office of the U.S. National Weather Service. “Additional impacts likely tomorrow with another day of extreme heat. Remain vigilant on your commutes!”

And when temperatures are high, and foliage is tinder dry, wildfires aren’t far behind. CBC reported yesterday that B.C. Wildlife Service crews were fighting two uncontrolled fires near Lytton and Kamloops.

Unlike past years and decades, climate scientists knew precisely what they were looking at when this heat wave hit, and they were prepared to say so.

“Now, if we have an extreme heat wave, the null hypothesis is, ‘Climate change is making that worse,’” Texas A&M atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler told Grist. Which means that now, the onus is no longer on climate scientists to prove that climate change affected a heat wave, but on anyone who chooses to disagree to prove otherwise.

“The analogy that people often use is loading the dice—you have dice and they used to be fair but now we’re loading up the sixes,” Dessler added. “But what’s actually happening is we’re hitting the point where we’ve added another side. Now we’re rolling sevens.”

“Every heat wave occurring today is made more likely and more intense by human-induced climate change,” agreed climate scientist Friederike Otto, associate director of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.

“This heat wave is exactly the type of event that scientists for years have been saying are going to become more common because of putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” added University of British Columbia climate scientist Simon Donner, a member of Canada’s Net-Zero Advisory Body. “The key to the problem is the more we emit greenhouse gases the more the planet warms: That’s the basic equation. So this is not the new normal. Normal is going to keep changing until we stop emitting greenhouse gas emissions. So events like this will become more common.”

Today’s level of scientific certainty is “a far cry from two decades ago, when scientists hesitated to link extreme weather events to climate change at all,” often taking years to produce their research and get it through peer review prior to publication, Grist notes. “But now, as heat extremes (and research) continue to pile up, scientists have grown increasingly confident that climate change plays a role in essentially every one of them.”