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North American heatwave a warning to the world

The intense heat wave in northwest US and Canada is attributed to a heat dome-like condition created by atmospheric high pressure.

Govind Singh and Armin Rosencranz | New Delhi |

The recent heat wave in the Vancouver area of Canada killed scores of people. The thermometers in Canada hit almost 50°C, breaking all past temperature records. This abnormal increase in temperature is accompanied with an increase in the number of heat days. Exposure to excessive heat for days together has been fatal for many individuals and disastrous for the affected communities.

The situation is not very different in the adjoining United States. The US northwest is experiencing record high temperatures to the extent that state authorities are setting up emergency “cooling shelters.” The temperature in the city of Portland reached a record high of 44.5°C. The unprecedented heat wave resulted in mass purchase of air conditioners and other cooling devices until stores exhausted their stock.

The intense heat wave in northwest US and Canada is attributed to a heat dome-like condition created by atmospheric high pressure. The heat dome keeps hot air trapped: The intensity of heat depends on local factors as well as any background warming. The US and Canada are reeling under an extreme and rare heat dome which is threatening the lives of many people, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Climate projections in the last three decades have consistently warned of extreme weather conditions and freak weather events. The US-Canadian heat wave must therefore be seen as a warning for all nations. The heat wave has already created new temperature records in the US and Canada. This was preceded by a record decline of the water level in the Hoover Dam, which is the US’s largest reservoir. The US-Canadian heat wave is an extreme weather event; the world must prepare to face more such extreme events in the near future.

Climate change continues to be the greatest challenge faced by humanity today. Unfortunately, measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change do not correspond to the pace with which change is happening. The warming of the planet is directly related to the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The global carbon dioxide concentration crossed the 400 ppm mark in 2013 for the first time since measurements began in 1958. The global carbon dioxide concentration is consistently rising and reached 416 ppm by May 2021.

2020 was the warmest year on record; 2021 will most likely replace it. Each passing year is breaking the record of the previous year. The last seven years are the warmest seven years on record and their impact on the global environment is now clear. In May 2021, a larger chunk of ice calved from the Antarctic ice sheet and became the world’s largest floating iceberg. Named A-76, this iceberg is three times the size of Delhi. A-76 may not directly contribute to sea level rise, but it is certainly a hazard to maritime trade.

The 2021 US-Canadian heat wave may not be a milestone event for anthropogenic climate change. However, it should be seen as a global warning for all nations: To begin with, the US-Canadian heat wave makes it clear that all nations are vulnerable and must work together to mitigate climate change. This message should resonate loud and clear now, and should alarm the delegates at the climate conference in Glasgow later this year.

More than 1,500 people lost their lives across Europe in the intense heat wave of 2003. If we don’t realize the importance of collective global cooperation in mitigating and adapting to climate change, it will cost many more lives in the future. The world needs to be united if we are serious about tackling climate change.

Within each nation, the US-Canadian heat wave should serve as a warning to prepare, improve and adequately implement national and local actions plans for climate change. This must take centre-stage in the functioning of all governments. Climate change adaptation measures must immediately be put in place. The US-Canadian heat wave has made it clear that the deleterious impacts of climate change will not announce themselves before appearing. Preparation is the key and time is of the essence.

With climate change now becoming a climate emergency, the corporate sector must also play its part. The transition to a green economy is not possible without the active involvement of big oil and gas companies. Inaction is no longer an option. The fate of the present and future generations is at stake.

The writers are, respectively, Associate Professor and Dean at Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana.