Summer had barely begun in late June when a heat wave walloped the Pacific Northwest – one unlike any that had come before. People were suddenly well versed in a new phrase: heat dome.
A high-pressure system parked itself over the region and trapped the heat. Stuck in place, the heat swirled – like it does in a convection oven. Temperatures shot up relentlessly, and records were broken in 62 places in Western Canada. The British Columbia village of Lytton recorded the highest temperature in Canadian history – 49.6 C – a day before a wildfire burned the community to the ground.
In many places, the crisis turned deadly. The heat killed 445 people in B.C. the week of June 25 to July 1. From late June to late July, there were a total of 569 heat-related deaths in the province. Nine out of 10 were people aged 60 and older – who were most likely to be living alone in a private residence with minimal ventilation.
The BC Centre for Disease Control called it the deadliest weather event Canada has ever seen – by a factor of three. The Vancouver region was particularly vulnerable. June had started off as it often does, cool and wet: “Juneuary,” in the local parlance. The heat arrived soon after the summer equinox, when people had not yet acclimatized to warmer days. Air conditioning in Metro Vancouver homes is unusual – four of five don’t have it.
The West Coast wasn’t ready and it paid the price, but killer heat is a plague that has ravaged places around the world. In 2003, a heat wave killed an estimated 70,000 people in Europe. In the United States, heat is the No. 1 killer among weather events.
Climate heating will make such heat waves worse in the coming decades. Scientists say the Pacific Northwest heat dome was so unusual that it lies “far outside the range of historically observed temperatures.” But if the planet warms by 2 C, it could happen twice a decade.
And the West Coast is not alone. Hotter summers are a threat across Canada, as detailed in a Globe and Mail report last weekend.
According to a forthcoming study from the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, three regions of Canada face extreme heat risk in the decades ahead: southern parts of Ontario and Quebec, the Prairies along the U.S. border, and valleys in the B.C. Interior.
Canadian governments need to start getting ready for this new reality, and they need to do it now.
B.C. is a case in point. In the worst of the heat dome, emergency systems hit the breaking point and 9-1-1 calls went unanswered. The province didn’t recall off-duty paramedics and dispatchers, as it could have. A month later, B.C. said it would hire 85 new paramedics and 30 more dispatchers. The disaster has sparked multiple reviews of the province’s emergency protocols.
Alert systems also need to be assessed. In 2019, after France put its heat plan into action ahead of a heat wave that reached 46 C, there were 90 per cent fewer deaths than in 2003.
Quebec is a leader on this in Canada; the latest version of its heat-warning system will be more finely tuned to things such as the time of year that a temperature spike occurs.
Public awareness is key, too. Cities can provide cooling centres and misting stations, but people need to know they’re open and available, and that even a brief respite from the heat can make a critical difference. Seemingly obvious things like fans need to be better understood, too. If the air is too hot indoors, a fan can worsen the situation.
Putting a person in charge can also help. Florida’s Miami-Dade County recently installed a chief heat officer.
Urban design is another factor. Cities are working to add more trees – an important issue in lower-income neighbourhoods where tree canopies are typically sparse.
Building codes should be looked at, too. Think of housing in typically hot countries, where colours lean to lighter shades. They reflect heat, rather than absorb it. Better insulation and windows glazed with a heat-resistant coating could also become critical.
Extreme heat is not something that most Canadians have had to worry about in the past. The many deaths on the West Coast this summer are a grim warning of what may lie ahead, but they didn’t have to happen.
Heat deaths are preventable – if the proper measures are set up in time.
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