HAVE YOU ever wondered what it feels like to be inside a pressure cooker? For the past month and a half, millions across the northern hemisphere have found themselves trapped in such an environment for days, with many struggling for their lives.
The conditions persisted for nearly three weeks in the northwestern US and western Canada, which the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) termed “exceptional and dangerous”. These are the planet’s colder geographies where people have designed their dwellings to ensure warming. As temperatures rapidly soared and reached dangerous highs of more than 45oC on consecutive days and overnight lows stayed higher than the average daytime highs offering little recovery time from the heat, several regions reported a sudden increase in deaths, particularly among the elderly; incidences of wildfire; melted train cables and buckled roads; breakdown of public utilities; and collapse of power grids.
In Canada’s British Columbia province, known for its Pacific coastline, snowcapped mountain peaks, and glacial fields, heat records kept tumbling for three consecutive days in the village of Lytton until June 29, when it became one of the hottest places on Earth. Temperatures reached an astounding 49.6oC that day. Before people could make sense of the situation in this picturesque mountain village on the confluence of two rivers, a wildfire destroyed almost every house and building. With two reported deaths, the village of 250 residents is now deserted. “It’s in the province of British Columbia, it’s home to the Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park and yet we are seeing temperatures more typical of the Middle East [West Asia] or North Africa,” said Clare Nullis, spokesperson, WMO.
Heat records kept tumbling at several other places, though the summer has only just begun in the northern hemisphere. “So many records have been broken that it is difficult to keep track,” wrote WMO in its report on exceptional heat for June 2021.
On June 20, the day of the summer solstice when areas above the Arctic Circle receive 24 hours of continuous sunlight, the EU’s Copernicus satellites recorded a scorching temperature of 48oC on the Arctic Siberia ground; precisely a year ago, the region had recorded the hottest ever temperature of 38oC. Hundreds of fires are now raging through Siberia’s taiga forests, just outside the Arctic circle. Temperatures have reached a 120-year-high in Moscow and several regions in western Russia. After a record-breaking heat in Finland’s Arctic Lapland area, the country’s meteorological institute has confirmed that June 2021 was the hottest since 1844. Sweden declared the month it's third hottest.
While the current heatwaves seem to have an affinity towards the colder parts of the planet, they have not spared warmer regions either. In West Asia, a region known for its hot and humid climate with temperatures regularly exceeding 40oC in summers, at least six countries (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates or UAE) are now in the above 50oC club. While the Sweihan town of UAE recorded the country’s highest 51.8oC as early as June 6, some media reports state the Kuwaiti city of Nuwaiseeb on June 22 recorded the highest temperature in the world so far at 53.2oC. In Libya, temperatures remained 10oC above the seasonal average across its western parts and caused fires and damages to farms. North India, which remains relatively cooler during the period, suffered from weeks of sweltering heat as the monsoon wind showed no signs of progress after June 19. The national capital broke a 90-year record as temperatures soared to 43.6oC on July 1.
Apart from a historic stretch of record-shattering temperatures, what has made the current heatwaves unprecedented and got scientists worrying are a few unusual trends: one, there are just too many such events occurring across the northern hemisphere around the same time. Two, severe heatwave conditions have started way too early—in June, which is usually the cooler month in the summer season with July and August reporting higher temperatures. Copernicus satellite data shows that the temperature rose above 30oC in several parts of the Arctic as early as May. Three, these heatwaves are not only intense, they are staying on longer. Four, at several places, heat records have been broken by a wide margin. On June 29, the temperature at Lytton was 10.5 o C higher than the previous hottest day recorded in 1987; the jump was an astounding 11.2 o C for Grande Prairie, also in western Canada. An analysis by Down To Earth (DTE) Shows the heatwaves have obliterated all-time temperature records in at least 44 cities in the western parts of North America for June (see ‘The great equalizer’, on p30).
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