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After Earth’s hottest week on record, extreme weather surprises everyone — even climate scientists

This past week was the Earth’s hottest on record, as extreme weather from wildfires to floods ravaged various corners of the world. Here’s a closer look at what’s happening.

We're in 'uncharted territory' with heat and extreme weather events models can’t always predict

A woman uses an umbrella to take shelter from the sun as she walks in downtown Rome

The heat has been unprecedented, as extreme weather from wildfires to floods ravage various corners of the world.

Data suggests last week was the hottest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Temperatures have soared across much of southern Europe and the southern United States, while powerful rain storms led to flooding in Vermont, India, Japan — and Montreal on Thursday.

At the same time, Canada has already surpassed the record for the total area burned in a wildfire season.

This follows the hottest June on record, with unprecedented sea surface temperatures and record low Antarctic sea ice coverage.

"There's a lot of concern from the scientific community and a lot of catch up in the scientific community trying to understand these incredible changes we're seeing at the moment," said Michael Sparrow, head of the WMO's world climate research program.

A homeless man sleeps under the sun in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles

'We can expect more records to fall'

All this comes at the onset of El Niño, which is expected to further fuel the heat both on land and in the oceans, according to Prof. Christopher Hewitt, WMO's director of climate services.

"We are in uncharted territory and we can expect more records to fall as El Niño develops further," he said. "These impacts will extend into 2024."

Global sea surface temperatures hit new records for the time of the year both in May and June, according to the WMO.

In Florida, for instance, the water temperature near Johnson Key was 36 Celsius, about 5 degrees warmer than normal this time of year, meteorologists said.

"As we go forward, we will see more extreme weather," said Altaf Arain, a professor in the school of earth, environment and society at McMaster University and director of McMaster's Centre for Climate Change.

While Arain isn't entirely surprised by the surging temperatures, he said the idea of a "new normal" should be thrown out the window.

"It may not be fair to use that term because when you talk about the new normal, then you have to look at the time scale," he said.

"We will have a new normal for the next decade. What about the following decade and the following decade? So would we keep on changing these normals? So I think this discussion should not be there."

Experiencing the wildfire smoke in Ontario earlier this summer was a reminder that the effects of climate change are far reaching, he said.

"The message you get is we are all in it together," he said. "We all will be impacted, one way or the other."

'Statistically impossible' becomes possible

Despite the heat and extreme weather of recent weeks, the planet hasn't necessarily reached a "tipping point" moment, said Nicholas Leach, a postdoctoral researcher in climate science at the University of Oxford.

"To the best of our knowledge these extreme weather events essentially will continue," said Leach, who was a part of a team of scientists that examined the "statistically impossible" 2021 heatwave in B.C.

Canada's all-time record was smashed that summer by nearly 5 Celsius, with a recorded high of 49.6 C in Lytton, B.C.

WATCH | The temperature will rise to the high 40s C in the U.S. southwest:

The temperature will rise to the high 40s C in the U.S. southwest

1 day ago

Duration 1:57

A heatwave in the U.S. southwest is being intensified by climate change and the most vulnerable are paying the price. The region accustomed to high temperatures but not at the sustained level it's experiencing this week.

In looking over historical data from 1959 to to 2021, Leach's study found that 31 per cent of Earth's land surface has already experienced such statistically implausible heat.

These regions are spread all across the globe with no clear pattern, he said.

The conclusion? Other statistically improbable events are likely.

"Countries that traditionally haven't seen really big jumps in their record, or particularly extreme events, shouldn't be complacent about that and should start kind of implementing these action plans and things that we know are effective at reducing mortality risk from heat waves," he said.

A learning curve for scientists

Scientists are learning as events evolve, allowing for better forecasting and preparedness, said Vermont State Climatologist Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux.

Her state experienced up to two months worth of rainfall within two days this week. The mass flooding resulted in damage to homes and properties and hundreds of people needing rescue.

Despite the storm being "very well-forecasted," Dupigny-Giroux said, it was still surprising to see such an impact in river levels.

WATCH | Vermont in state of emergency:

Catastrophic flooding leaves Vermont under state of emergency

2 days ago

Duration 2:21

Vermont is under a state of emergency after the U.S. state was pummelled by two-months' worth of rain in just two days. The rain has let up for now but officials warn the flood risk is far from over with more rain in the forecast.

"Looking at some of the river record levels and seeing values that are like 10 feet above flood stage, that is just mind boggling," she said.

"Even if you had a model that predicted that, it's still mind boggling to actually see that in real life."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate change, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

    With files from Emily Chung

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