This story includes details about the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.
July 22, 2021: While terrifying wildfires and flash floods made headlines across the globe, researchers offered a starkly honest road map for cities looking for the swiftest path to greater resilience.
In British Columbia, over 300 fires are burning around the province, the largest being the Sparks Lake Fire north of Kamloops, CBC reports. Formally listed as out of control by the B.C. Wildfire Service, this single fire is currently engulfing an area of 450 square kilometres, four times the size of metropolitan Vancouver. The province has declared a state of emergency, with “40 evacuation orders affecting about 5,700 people or almost 2,900 properties in the provincem” and an additional 69 evacuation alerts affecting “just under 33,000 people and about 16,000 properties,” CBC writes.
Forecasts of strong winds throughout the interior and southeast corners of the province are likely to make efforts more difficult for the interprovincial force of more than 3,100 firefighters currently on the scene. While no rain is expected, there is a good chance of lightning, which could spark more fires. Speaking with CBC, Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, said the province could see “significant fire behaviour,” particular in its southern half, “where the conditions remain extremely dry and extremely volatile.” Rushing to provide extra support by the weekend are an additional 400 firefighters from across Canada, and another 100 from Mexico. Ottawa is sending a further 350 military personnel to help.
In just one example of the economic fallout from the B.C. fires, Vancouver-based softwood lumber giant Canfor announced it is curtailing production at its Canadian mills as wildfires throughout western Canada create “significant supply chain challenges.” The company operates other mills in the southeastern United States and Sweden.
And significant public health fallout is expected, too. Making clear the “limits of livability” imposed by wildfires exacerbated by the climate crisis, CBC News reports that Environment Canada has issued a special air quality statement for virtually all of Alberta as wildfire smoke puts vulnerable populations at “very high risk” of dangerous impacts.
Elsewhere in Canada, CBC reports that Toronto received a similar statement from its provincial authorities as wildfire smoke from fires burning in Northwestern Ontario blanketed much of the province last week, causing air quality to plummet. This week, Environment Canada also warned of high to extreme risk of smoke in communities closest to those fires, including Red Lake, Dryden, and Sioux Lookout.
Wildfire smoke warnings are also on the agenda for millions of residents on America’s northeast coast, with the Associated Press reporting a pall of smoky haze hanging over New Jersey, New York City, and Pennsylvania, courtesy of strong winds blowing east from wildfires ablaze in California, Oregon, and Montana, to list just three states currently battling flames.
In B.C. and the Pacific Northwest, the ongoing explosion of wildfires is intimately related to the fact that precipitation has been extremely thin on the ground—for weeks. CBC writes that some southern and coastal regions of B.C. are hovering around 4 on a drought scale of 1 to 5, causing growing concern about a cascade of harm to riparian systems (the areas around wetlands and rivers), especially in the southeastern corner of the province, and in the eastern half of Vancouver Island, where soils are shallow.
“A lot of the small streams will start to basically dry up at the surface,” John Richardson, a professor of aquatic and riparian-area ecology at the University of British Columbia, told CBC. “Further downstream, the bigger streams will recede to these little isolated pools where any fish or amphibians or invertebrates will get basically trapped and be very vulnerable to predators.”
Such fears come in the devastating wake of what experts believe may have been the loss of over a billion intertidal sea creatures, which literally cooked to death in their home pools when a “heat dome” clamped down over the region in early July.
Meanwhile, farmers in southern Alberta are reeling as they predict a crop decimated by heat and drought, with swarms of grasshoppers chewing through whatever remains. Farmer Kim Owen told CBC his family expects to see a crop as small as 10 bushels this year, down 90% from last year’s harvest. Owen added that he and his father will be depending on their insurance packages to get them through to next year. Shawn Marshall, a professor of geography at the University of Calgary, said climate models show the Canadian prairies becoming hotter and drier as the Arctic warms, requiring “some adaptation in what we can farm and what’s viable for agriculture in this area.”
Around the hemisphere,in the once famously cool and foggy United Kingdom, the Evening Standard reports a first-ever amber alert issued by Public Health England as temperatures throughout the country spiked as high as 33°C. In Henan, one of China’s poorest and most densely-populated provinces, citizens had a terrifyingly immediate encounter with another dire climate impact: flash flooding. Several days of torrential rains have left the region reeling with 33 confirmed dead, many missing, hundreds of thousands displaced, and at least US$190 million in economic damages, reports CNN.
Over the course of a single hour on Tuesday afternoon, more than 20 centimetres of rain bucketed down onto Zhengzhou, the region’s capital, Henan officials say. CNN reports that 12 people died on one flooded subway line, with passengers (elderly and infants among them) becoming trapped in cars as the waters rose and oxygen levels dropped.
Other cities saw landslides, overflowing reservoirs, and homes swept away. Reporting on the situation in the smaller city of Huixian, The Washington Post writes of a hospital desperately short on food for its 380 nursing home residents, 150 patients, and 150 staff members, and left without access to water, electricity, and gas. Providing a sense of the volume that fell onto Henan, The Guardian reports that a year’s worth of rain fell in three days.
While summer flooding is a familiar occurrence in parts of China, “recent record-breaking rains have alarmed scientists and officials, raising questions as to whether the country is prepared to deal with more extreme and unpredictable weather amplified by climate change,” CNN notes. Citing Greenpeace China, CNN explains that “areas undergoing rapid urbanization are experiencing a steep rise in risk,” with the poor, elderly, unemployed, and sick particularly vulnerable.
The swamping of Henan comes as Belgium and Germany grieve the more than 200 people lost to the killing torrents of water that swept across their territories on July 14 and 15. Politicians there are making fervent pledges to push harder on climate action, CBC reports, with Deputy Environment Minister Jochen Flasbarth saying the EU has no alternative but to deliver on its climate action plan. EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, chief architect of the continent’s newly-updated climate strategy, called the floods “a reminder of the fact that the cost in human lives, but also material costs of non-action, are way, way higher than the cost of acting.”
Officials now believe the 155 people still missing in the tragic European flooding will not be found alive, The Guardian writes. And as rescue efforts turn to recovery, a computer modelling study just published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests slow-moving weather systems over land could become 14 times more common by 2050 than they are now, with the attendant risk of more catastrophic flooding.
“The rapidly warming Arctic may be the root cause of slowing weather systems, by decelerating high-level winds such as the jet stream,” The Guardian explains. Experts have also linked the phenomenon to floods in Pakistan and killing heat waves in Russia in 2010.
And, 11 years on, an even worse heat-driven crisis has hit northern Russia, writes The Guardian. “Everything is on fire,” said Varvara, a senior living in Teryut, in northeast Siberia. “Emergency workers have come and villagers are also fighting the fires but they can’t put them out, they can’t stop them.”
The sub-arctic ecosystem has been enduring its driest July since the 1870s, a record that “follows five years of hot summers, which have, according to villagers, turned the surrounding forests and fields into a tinderbox,” the UK news outlet reports.
The New York Times writes that, by the end of last year, the region had lost “more than 155,400 square kilometres of forest and tundra, an area the size of Florida,” and “more than four times the area that burned in the United States.” This year, just two weeks into peak fire season, the country has already seen 77,700 square kilometres of its territory burn.
Adding to the peril of woods made tinder dry by extreme heat and drought, writes Reuters, is the increasing incidence of Arctic lightning storms.
Fear of lightning—most terrifyingly that generated by monster fire storms themselves via so-called “fire clouds”—will be on the minds of those 2,000-plus firefighters battling the Bootleg Fire in Oregon. Having “already scorched an area larger than the city of Los Angeles,” writes BBC News, Bootleg is one of the largest fires in the state’s history and has forced thousands to evacuate.
Yesterday, Wildfire Today said the blaze had grown to nearly 400,000 acres.
Policy-makers staring down such escalating impacts of the climate crisis may find courage and inspiration in a new joint report by McKinsey Sustainability and C40 Cities, which calls for cities to assume “a wartime footing” to prepare and adapt to “extreme weather that has already arrived.”
Bloomberg CityLab says the study marks a rapid shift in the dialogue around climate action, from “debating when severe climate changes will manifest” to understanding that “it’s too late to stop these serious impacts,” and that the time for adaptation is now. [As long as we also remember that rapid decarbonization is also the new adaptation, unless anyone thinks it’s possible to adapt to 2.0°C average warming or higher—Ed.]
Of the 15 strategies outlined in the report, CityLab notes that four rank as “the most high-impact, easy-to-implement means of making global cities more resilient”, and should be universally adopted by cities worldwide. That list includes “increasing awareness through research and risk assessments, incorporating climate risk through city actions and policies like zoning and urban planning, optimizing responses with early warning systems, and enhancing financing programs like climate insurance.”
Overall, CityLab adds, “nature-based solutions, such as planting heat-mitigating street trees or installing natural infrastructure like salt marshes as coastal barriers, are the most attractive in terms of feasibility and impact across many crises.”
Mikhail Chester, director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University, said nearly every piece of infrastructure in every city has been “designed with a certain environmental condition in mind”. That reality can lead to a widespread and overwhelming sense of vulnerability, he told CityLab: “If I can’t even fix the roads today, how do I fix everything?”
While those feelings are understandable, he said, officials need to open their eyes. “Climate change is simply moving faster than we can change infrastructure,” he said. “That infrastructure will fail. We need to think about what happens when infrastructure fails. Have you designed failure into the infrastructure system itself?”