by Peter Franklin
Friday, 2
July 2021
Spotted
07:00

Canada’s heatwave is a vision of our future

In decades to come swathes of the world will resemble British Columbia today
by Peter Franklin
He might get a tan, but it won’t be worth it in the long-term. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

We don’t usually associate the Great White North with blistering heat, but on Tuesday a new record was set for Canada — 49.6°C in Lytton, British Columbia. 

Of course, heatwaves happen; and Canada isn’t immune. Nevertheless what’s happened this week is extraordinary. The country’s temperature record wasn’t just broken, it was smashed — by nearly five degrees centigrade. 

We can’t be absolutely sure that this is directly related to climate change — or that anything as bad (or worse) will happen again soon. However, we can be certain that the planet is warming up and that all that extra energy won’t be distributing itself evenly. 

On a geological timescale, what we’re doing to the climate is happening very fast. But what about the human timescale? We’ve still got years — indeed, decades — to adapt, haven’t we?

Well, yes, as a species, we have. But as individuals, there’s literally a point at which we can’t cope with extreme heat. 

You may have heard a few mentions this week — e.g. here and here — of something called ‘wet-bulb temperature’. This takes a bit of explaining, but bear with me because your life might just depend it.

It’s got nothing to do with planting tulips, but rather refers to the bulb of a thermometer. If you cover the bulb in a wet cloth then, because of the cooling effect of evaporation, a lower temperature is recorded than if the bulb is left dry. 

The purpose of the exercise is to simulate what human bodies do to stay cool, i.e. perspire. When the moisture on our skin evaporates, the cooling effect allows us to tolerate higher ambient  temperatures than if we didn’t sweat like pigs.

However, there are limits. At a wet-bulb temperature of around 35°C, human bodies gain more heat than they lose, no matter how much they sweat. It’s at this point that people start dying.

Though many parts of the world regularly experience temperatures above 35°C, these are ambient or ‘dry-bulb’ temperatures that don’t take into account the cooling effect of evaporation. Currently, wet-bulb temperatures very rarely reach this danger level (except in very local environments like a stifling apartment or a locked car). However, if we continue to push global temperatures upwards at the current rate, whole parts of world will slip into the danger zone. 

Outside of artificially-cooled spaces, these areas would become uninhabitable — which is obviously a very bad thing, even if, at first, it only happens occasionally.

Environmental campaigners are missing a trick by not doing more to highlight this issue. While global warming has all sorts of nasty consequences well before we hit the wet-bulb danger zone, it strikes me that a hard limit on human survival is a great way of concentrating minds. 

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Trevor Law
Trevor Law
1 year ago

Any chance we could stick to rational scientific debate? I thought that the whole point of Unherd was that it doesn’t follow the herd, but perhaps I was wrong? Give me information, not proselytization.

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
1 year ago
Reply to  Trevor Law

Not following the herd wherever it goes doesn’t mean disagreeing with it no matter what. On climate change, there are clearly some parts of the accepted narrative that are correct and backed up by good data and theory. It doesn’t mean we have to get all Greta Thunberg, but a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Trevor Law

Science keeps saying this Pacific NW heat event is a 1 in 1000 year ‘Heat Dome’, a very rare climatic event
“The core of the heatdome, as measured by the thickness of the air column over British Columbia and the Pacific NW, is – statistically speaking – equivalent to a 1 in 1000 year event”
But a Gretta spin on everything is pretty much required these days. Remember, these events likely used to be 1 in 2000 year events, and are now 1 in 1000 year events, so likely means:
“In decades to come swathes of the world will resemble British Columbia today”
I always liked Poutine, so can handle it.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Science keeps saying this Pacific NW heat event is a 1 in 1000 year ‘Heat Dome’, a very rare climatic event.
Yes. It’s easy to google the heatwave in the pacific northwest and learn about the rare conjunction of factors that caused the heat dome. As the author of this article rightly notes at the beginning, there’s no evidence to link climate change to this anomalous event (although I think it should be conceded there might be a link to some extent). I’m not sure why the author chose to concede the current heatwave can’t definitely be linked to climate change and then use it as an example of what will happen to all of us if we don’t change our CO2-producing ways.
The more interesting question for me is what if the changes we now see in the climate are, for the most part, not caused by human activity? What if they’re part of a natural cycle of climate change? We can’t control that; all we can do is adapt and learn to live with it.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“What if they’re part of a natural cycle of climate change?”
There is too much money and prestige riding on that not being the case.  

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

It’s funny because whenever it gets really cold we’re told it’s not climate, it’s weather. But when it gets really hot, apparently that’s climate, not weather.

George Glashan
George Glashan
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Once upon a time climate scientists told us to expect a global freezing, that a new ice age was imminent, then there was the hole in the ozone layer melting the ice caps, then it was global warming. Now its climate change, I guess they gave up on predicting if its getting warmer or colder. How does this climate science have any credibility.
Boss: are we making or losing money?
George: All I can tell you is that the money we have will be different from yesterday.
Boss: you’re fired.

Last edited 1 year ago by George Glashan
Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  George Glashan

More details on the ‘once upon a time’ bit about climate scientists predicting global freezing would be helpful – or is this just impressionistic? And there’s really quite a bit of stuff available about the credibility of current climate science,

George Glashan
George Glashan
1 year ago

Google is you friend there Andrew, global freezing was climate science through out the 70’s

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago

I confirm what George Glashan said. When I was a lad, global freezing was quite the fashionable thing. Peddling the new ice age scenario was the route to success in the academic rat race of the time, just as peddling anthropomorphic climate change is today. Science is as corruptible as any other human activity, and when there is money involved don’t stand in front of the stampede. Of course, the real skill lies in being able to swap horses part way through without falling off.

Last edited 1 year ago by Terry Needham
Matt B
Matt B
1 year ago

True, but note the possibility that a warming planet could involve a threshold phase shift to regional glaciation – rapidly shifting magnetic poles aside. It’s like trying fix a part-diagnosed car engine fault whilst swerving down a part known track towards a cliff (over it or into it who cares). See link: https://www.whoi.edu/know-your-ocean/ocean-topics/climate-ocean/abrupt-climate-change/are-we-on-the-brink-of-a-new-little-ice-age/

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt B
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

14 times as many people die of cold each year and whilst global warming does drive maximum temperatures higher, most of the average temperature increase is accounted for by increases in the lowest temperatures, ie milder winters, more than cancelling out the total rise in heat deaths.

Also, whilst heatwaves are deadly, we are already perfectly able to adapt to them. Roll outs of air conditioning have reduced heat related deaths by 50-60% over the last few decades and are a cost effective fix.

I recommend you read some of Bjorn Lomborg’s writings on the subject.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

‘Several of Bjørn Lomborg’s articles in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Telegraph have been checked by Climate Feedback, a worldwide network of scientists who collectively assess the credibility of influential climate change media coverage. The Climate Feedback reviewers assessed that the scientific credibility ranged between “low” and “very low”.’ Just Wikipedia, but worth wondering about.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

Thanks. Always good to have a broad range of sources and see what the counter arguments are. It will be interesting to see which of his claims they disagree with.

Trevor Law
Trevor Law
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Especially since Lomberg takes the bulk of his data from the IPCC!

Trevor Law
Trevor Law
1 year ago

We should always remember that the so-called “fact-checkers” have skin in the game.

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

“the most extreme humid heat is highly localized in both space and time” (from the Science Advances paper linked to)
In other words, areas with extreme wet bulb temperatures, like deserts with dry heat, or arctic and antarctic locations with extremes of cold, will be relatively easy to avoid, or to use technology to mitigate the effects.
Science-scare articles often use linguistic sleights of hand. For example, a doubling of prevalence can accurately be labelled as ‘more widespread’. But if it’s a doubling from 0.0001% to 0.0002%, then ‘widespread’ (alone) which is often picked up in lay papers is entirely false. Here there is huge write up of potential ‘severity’ without really noting how easy it is to avoid.

Matt B
Matt B
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

Media reporting has been poor and may too have contributed to overemphases of data demanding far clearer qualification.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt B
Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 year ago

There was also a very nasty cold spell in Texas this year. Please don’t say this was just a freak weather incident. I recently read that the current Heat Dome in British Columbia is comparable to heatwaves during La Niña, which, according to the climate scientists, had nothing to do with Global Warming.
I really would like UnHerd to publish one of many scientists, who have other scientific explanations of natural occurring Warming, than the usual suspects who are just part of the Herd of Main Stream thinking.

Matt B
Matt B
1 year ago
Last edited 1 year ago by Matt B
Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
1 year ago

Climate change today is what Satan used to be. A name for blame of anything seen as frightening or evil. So extreme weather is not extreme weather it is climate change.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Roman

What world do you come from that you think Satan was used to mean frightening? Satan was used to refer to the master of Evil, a very particular issue of ultimate, intentional, malevolence. Your post and upvotes show the young today have 100% disassociated from the entire human culture of the even recent past.

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
1 year ago

The BBC, which is an environmental campaigner, has been foregrounding this heatwave for days. The real issue is not whether it is getting hotter but what to do about it. And that in turn requires an adaptive response to what will be a hotter world, not endlessly going on about cutting emissions and “net zero”. There is some sign that the BBC is beginning to see this. But not much.

Matt B
Matt B
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Mott

Mitigation is no longer enough alone, so adaptation is more critical. Both are needed,

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt B
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

I will echo what a number of people have said and ask for articles discussing both sides of the climate change debate: man made vs natural occurrence.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“In decades to come swathes of the world will resemble British Columbia today”
As I have been hanging out in Vancouver BC a lot in my life I assume you mean the swaths will become second Provinces of China. Richmond BC was my old hangout, even in the 1980s it was called Hong-Couver.
Sad to see the old British ways so disregarded even though USA readership and neighbors remain in F, the European C is the only measurement here, and the Queens head is still the symbol of state in Canada.
I remember the horrible 1971 change over from the proud Roman system, and two thousand years of British usage, of proper money: farthing, haypenny, tuppence, thruppence, sixpence, shilling, florin, half crown, crown, ten bob, pound, and guinea when one British Pound = 240 pence. Then meters, and C and the EU taking over, a sad time.

The end result of all this is young people who have absolutely no ability at basic arithmetic – in the old days we could add up 3-8-4p and 3-5p and 13-9p in our heads, and then subtract it from a five pound note mentally…Now youth cannot add 47 and 19 without using their phones.

Also – WHY did you not give the ‘Wet Bulb Temp’ when it was 49.6 C? (this takes into account humidity of the air) since you went on about it.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The 12 based system was excellent! You modern folk have no idea. I do the trades in USA where 12 inches = 1 foot and 4 ft is the standard measure base.
10 is divisible by 2 and 5, or 1/5 and 1/2, hardly useful for building.

12 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6. 1/6, 1/3, 1/4, 1/2. Carpentry in USA is based on 16 inch center, 16, 32, 48 mostly, or 12 inch center, 12, 24, 36, 48 or 24 center, 24, 48.
One inch is divided by 1/32, 1/16/ 1/8/ 1/4, 1/2. Every 4 foot length, 8, 12, 16, 20, can be broken into easy whole numbers or simple, compatible, fractions without any .33333 or 0.125, or .0625 that are so hard to add up and make to ‘Break’.

The 13 knot string was histories greatest builder tool – 12 increments, and can be used to find square (right triangle at knot 3, 7, and closed at 12 makes 90 degrees, the 13 knot string (12 lengths between knots, base 12) was to find any useful angle, and length – an AMAZING tool.
Base 10 is for calculating, not making, it is not natural, 360, 180, 90 is how we still do circles, (12 based) and time, because it is NATURAL math, as it reflects the real world, not some paper calculation.
Carpenter’s squares are still what the world is built with, 360/90 degrees, not 100/10 – Napoleon, the guy who forced decimalization, wanted decriminalize clocks, calendars, circles, it is not usefull as it is not natural maths except for calculations on paper.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago

Any chance of getting some of that heat dome over to the UK?

Because it’s been bloody pissing down all over the b*****d place for a month now and I’m sick of it.

Matt B
Matt B
1 year ago

All a bit of a mystery, but perhaps Unherd’s scientist readers can publish here what they see as the unheard science base?

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt B
Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
1 year ago

I remember back in the 70s my eldest brother scaring me about the imminent return of the ice age….