When Canada Was Hotter Than Baghdad

The problem with climate change isn’t the averages, it’s the spikes, and you can engineer a drought-resistant seed but the weather can bake it

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
A wildfire raging in British Columbia earlier this month.
A wildfire raging in British Columbia earlier this month.Credit: - - AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Still dubious about climate change even though last week temperatures spiked to 47 degrees Celsius (116.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in Oregon and Washington State, and almost 50 degrees Celsius in British Columbia, Canada? Such heat in such places should be a once-in-a-thousand-years event, researchers say, and would have been “virtually impossible” if not for global warming.

“Virtually impossible” is mealy-mouthed. We can understand scientists who must employ due caution, but we the press can say it: climate change may have only lifted the average global temperature by 1.1 degrees Celsius so far, but it’s going to cook us.

Today, Thursday, the temperature at the Dead Sea is 32 degrees Celsius. In Tel Aviv it’s 28 degrees and in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, it’s 33 degrees. Baghdad is baking in 40 degrees Celsius – and that’s still almost 10 degrees Celsius less than the people of Lytton, BC, experienced before their town suddenly caught fire.

If it’s any comfort to Canada, parts of the Middle East were also slammed by heat waves, in early June and again in July, that raised temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. And while many Canadians don’t have air conditioners, not having foreseen any need for them, in parts of Iran and Iraq they may have had air conditioners but they didn’t have reliable electricity.

The danger is less the increase in average temperatures and more the spikes, the extremes, at both ends: from the February snow disaster in Texas to the roasting of North America last week, where parts of the U.S. and Canada felt temperatures never observed before. They weren’t a degree or two higher than usual. They were about 20 to 30 degrees higher than usual. Hundreds died.

A closeup of mussels in the Netherlands.Credit: LEX VAN LIESHOUT - AFP

We can crawl into an air-conditioned room if we have an air conditioner. Animals can’t. The heat wave decimated wildlife, especially sedentary shoreline shellfish such as mussels, CTV reports: More than 1 billion marine animals may have died during the British Columbia heat wave, marine ecologist Dr. Christopher Harley and members of his lab estimate.

Meanwhile, who loves a northern hemisphere heat wave? Mosquitoes.

More than 5 million extra deaths a year can be attributed to abnormal hot and cold, says a study led by Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. The data from 2000 to 2019 show heat-related deaths increased everywhere, says the team in The Lancet Planetary Health. Since the spikes grow spikier, we can expect annual mortality from heat to increase. During those 19 years, the global average temperature rose by a mere 0.26 degrees Celsius per decade, they estimate – again, the problem isn’t the average, it’s the spikes. And actually, extreme cold is a worse killer, they found.

Meanwhile, MIT announced it’s working on a low-cost process, in collaboration with researchers in Morocco, to protect crop seeds from water stress during germination (a crucial phase in any plant’s life). It involves a two-layer coating. An outer gel-like substance protects the seed from desiccating; an inner rhizobacteria-laden coating is supposed to help feed the plant – they fix nitrogen in the soil. Field tests of the coated seeds are underway. MIT claims the process is simple enough to be applied at a local level to any seed. Yes, the seeds will cost more.

But did we mention heat spikes? You can engineer a seed to resist drought and coexist with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but one horrendous heat or cold spike can wreak havoc on your germinating crop. This ties into a prediction published in May by Aalto University, Finland, that, on the current trajectory, global food production will fall by more than a third by 2100.

A young boy splashing through a waterfall at a park in Washington, DC, last month.Credit: JIM WATSON - AFP

“Food production as we know it developed under a fairly stable climate, during a period of slow warming that followed the last ice age. The continuous growth of greenhouse gas emissions may create new conditions, and food crop and livestock production just won’t have enough time to adapt,” explained co-author Matias Heino.

We could stop traveling. We could stop gratuitous energy use. There is, however, not much we can do about ghost forest tree farts. A study from North Carolina State University found that greenhouse gas emissions from dead trees in wetland forests – “tree farts” – are a factor and their contribution should be entered into emission calculations. Especially as more trees are expected to die because sea levels are rising on the Carolina coasts, killing forests. At least Israel has no such problem, having no forests to speak of, let alone on the coast.

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