If you had made a list of possible locations for Hell on Earth before this week, the tiny mountain village of Lytton in Canada probably wouldn’t have occurred to you.
Few people outside of British Columbia had heard of this community of 250 people. Those who had it were more likely to view it as bucolic. Nestled at the confluence of rivers in the forested foothills of the Lillooet and Botania mountain ranges, the municipal website boasts: “Lytton is the perfect place for nature lovers to connect with incredible natural beauty and the freedom of the countryside. ‘fresh air.”
Over the past seven days, however, the village has been making headlines around the world for an incredibly prolonged and intense temperature spike that has turned the romance into hell.
US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have warned worried populations to prepare for more. Shocked climatologists wonder how even the worst-case scenarios failed to predict such furnace conditions so far north.
Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said recent extreme weather anomalies were not represented in global computer models used to project how the world might change with more emissions . The fear is that weather systems will be blocked more frequently due to human emissions. “This is a risk – of a severe regional climate impact triggered by global warming – that we have underestimated so far,” he said.
In Lytton, it was as if time itself had stagnated. Trapped in a vast dome of heat that enveloped western Canada and the northwestern United States, temperatures had no choice but to rise.
In Lytton, the Canadian national heat record was broken Monday, shattered Tuesday, then erased Wednesday when the local monitoring station recorded 49.6 ° C (121 ° F).
After the unbearable heat came the suffocating fire. First the forest burned down, then parts of the city. On Wednesday evening, Mayor Jan Polderman issued the evacuation order. ” It’s horrible. The whole town is on fire, “he said on television.” It took about 15 minutes from the first sign of smoke and, suddenly, fire everywhere. “On Thursday, satellite images showed a fires erupt around the village and a cloud of smoke widening in the area.
Police stations and hospitals have reported an increase in the number of heat-related deaths – 486 in British Columbia and dozens more south of the border. The roads twisted as the asphalt spread. At least one city has suffered power cuts.
The psychological, political and economic impacts are harder to quantify, but for many the horror has been accompanied by a sense of astonishment that these northern territories are hotter than the Middle East. David Phillips, the Canadian government’s senior climatologist, summed it up in an interview with CTV. “I mean, it’s just not something that looks Canadian.”
More and more people in more countries feel that their climate belongs to another part of the world. Across the border in Washington state, the maximum heat measured at Olympia and Quillayute was 6 ° C above the previous all-time record, according to the Weather Prediction Center. In Oregon, the city of Salem hit 47C, shattering the previous record of 9C. Several parts of California and Idaho also recorded new highs.
The week before, Northern Europe and Russia also suffocated in an unprecedented heat bubble. June records were broken in Moscow (34.8C), Helsinki (31.7C), Belarus (35.7C) and Estonia (34.6C).
Further east, Siberia experienced an early heat wave that helped reduce the amount of sea ice in the Laptev Sea to an all-time high for the time of year. The city of Oymyakon, Russia, widely considered the coldest inhabited place on earth, was warmer (31.6 ° C) than it ever was in June. This follows an incredibly prolonged heat wave in Siberia last year that lasted for several months.
Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said there was a clear human imprint on this “very abnormal” event. Without emissions from cars, farms and industry, he said, record temperatures in western North America would only be expected once every tens of thousands of years, but the probability increases with the levels of greenhouse gases. “In today’s climate, having an extremely hot June is common and likely to happen twice in three decades. However, an analysis of numerous computer models suggests that by the end of the century, these extreme temperatures are more likely than not. It is estimated that human influence increased the likelihood of a new record several thousand times. “
The rise in temperatures is visible all over the world. Even in the Middle East, temperatures over 50 ° C were once outliers, but parts of Pakistan, India, Australia, the United States and Canada are now regularly approaching or exceeding this mark. .
But the intensity of the heat in the northwestern Americas this year and in Siberia last year took many scientists by surprise and suggested that additional factors could be involved in the northern latitudes.
One theory is that the recent spike in temperature may have been caused not only by global warming, but by the slowing of weather systems that remain stuck in one place for an extended period of time, giving them time to escalate and recede. cause more damage. This was a major factor in the devastation in Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2018, which remained over Houston for several days rather than blowing inland and weakening. The stranded high pressure fronts were also blamed for the scorching heat wave in Europe in 2019.
Experts at the Potsdam Institute and elsewhere believe that the rapid warming of the Arctic and the decline of sea ice are causing the jet stream to move in large meanders, called Rossby resonance waves, trapping weather systems at high and low pressure in one place. for longer.
This theory remains disputed, but Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said this week’s surprisingly fierce heat in Lytton and elsewhere should prompt climatologists to consider additional impacts of the weather. ‘human activity.
“We should take this event very seriously,” he wrote in an email. “You’re warming the planet, you’re going to see an increase in the incidence of extreme heat. Climate models capture this effect very well and predict large increases in heat extremes. But something else is happening with this heat wave, and indeed, with many of the very persistent extreme weather conditions we’ve seen in recent years in the United States, Europe, Asia and elsewhere, where models don’t capture not quite the impact of climate change. “
Whatever interactions to blame, scientists agree that the easiest way to reduce the risk of further temperature shocks is to cut fossil fuel emissions and stop deforestation.
“It seems that this heat wave is still a rare phenomenon in the current climate, but that it remains dependent on our decisions,” he added. Friederike Ottosaid the associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “If the world does not quickly eliminate the use of fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions like deforestation, global temperatures will continue to rise and such deadly heat waves will become even more severe. current. “