Canadians need to do more to prep for ‘potentially lethal’ extreme heat events: report

Canada will experience more extreme heat events, according to a new report from University of Waterloo researchers, who say that means people and communities need to adapt to higher temperatures and make safety plans.

'Climate risk is baked into our future already and we need to adapt,' University of Waterloo researcher says

The authors of a new report on extreme heat say Canada has reached the "ultimate code red" when it comes to addressing this burning environmental issue.

Researchers from the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo in Ontario consulted 60 experts across the country for the report, which includes "practical actions" individuals and communities can take to address rising temperatures.

Extreme heat is when the temperature and humidity rise above what is considered normal for an area. In some cases, the researchers say, it can be deadly.

Blair Feltmate, one of the lead authors of the report, noted that Ontario's Waterloo region currently sees about 10 to 12 days each summer where temperatures reach 30 C or higher, often topping out at 34 C.

He said modelling shows that by 2050, there could be up to 55 days each summer above 30 C and it could top out at 38 C.

People tend to equate extreme weather with floods or fires, Feltmate said. During those events, there can be human death, but in extreme cases of heat, hundreds can die. That was the case when more than 500 people died during a "heat dome" over parts of British Columbia, which saw temperatures above 40 C from late June to early July in 2021.

"So we describe it as a code red, because extreme heat is almost like the silent killer — that when things go wrong, they really go wrong," Feltmate said.

Everyone is at risk

The report mentions three hot spots in Canada that are expected to be particularly impacted by extreme heat:

  • The west coast of British Columbia, including the valleys leading up to the mountains.
  • The southern prairie regions, particularly bordering the United States.
  • The north shore of Lake Erie on through to the shore of Lake Ontario, through the St. Lawrence River Valley.

These are areas that have, in the past, seen more summer days over 30 C, higher maximum temperatures and longer heat waves than other parts of the country.

But the report says everyone is at risk from heat illnesses when temperatures rise.

Joanna Eyquem, another lead author of the study, said a lot of deaths from extreme heat involve people who live alone. Those most likely to be impacted are the elderly, people experiencing homelessness and people with health conditions.

"Because it's something that affects everybody, and we don't know when there is a problem necessarily, unless we're checking on those people, it might be harder to get away from extreme heat," Eyquem said.

"Basically, cities are hot spots for extreme heat and for global warming. So if you live in a city, you're probably exposed."

Cities going grey

In April, a Statistics Canada report found many cities are going grey rather than green, which can result in urban heat island effects — when an urban area is significantly warmer than surrounding areas, such as a parking lot compared to a park.

The federal agency's report looked at the greenness of 996 areas in 2001, 2011 and 2019. Of the 31 cities involved, two in Ontario, Kitchener and Guelph, saw more green in 2019 than in 2011 and 2001, while St. John's maintained the same level of greenness over the 18 years.

Niall Lobley, director of parks and cemeteries for the City of Kitchener, said council has "shown a strong commitment" to greenspaces in recent years.

Urban green spaces play a key a role in a city's ecosystem, by mitigating floods, Lobley said, and keeping the city cool during hot summer days.

Feltmate said that beyond planting trees, there are other initiatives cities could undertake, such as painting roofs white.

"When sunlight hits the white surface, that energy re-radiates back to space rather than staying on the ground. And we want cool pavements, lighter-coloured pavements, again, to reflect sunlight, the heat from sunlight back up into space," he said.

Eyquem said individuals can also use nature to help cool off their spaces: "Looking at trees and vegetation, using them to shade our homes and buildings, and basically these surfaces cool our cities."

Some tips in the report include:

  • Having a green roof.
  • Ensure homes are insulated and airtight.
  • Use concrete, brick, stone and tile finishes that absorb heat.
  • Property owners should install and maintain backup power generation in case of extended power outages.
  • Arrange for backup water supply during power outages.
  • Communities can find ways to reduce vehicular traffic.
  • Municipalities can require heat-sensitive urban planning, infrastructure design, and operation.

"We need to act at different levels. But we also look at different types of actions," Eyquem said.

'Vote for climate action'

Gideon Forman is a Toronto-based climate policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation.

The foundation was not one of the consultants on the University of Waterloo report, although its Butterfly Way Project was highlighted as an initiative that brought more vegetation into urban areas.

Forman said the report highlights that temperatures have already, in some parts of Canada, "defied belief."

He particularly noted the town of Lytton, B.C. where temperatures reached almost 50 C — "virtually halfway to boiling" — last summer.

Extreme heat, he said, "is not something that might happen or could happen or potentially happen. It is happening and it's tragic."

The report looks at ways for Canadians to adapt to higher temperatures, but Forman said it's important people also consider why extreme heat is happening. One of the biggest reasons is greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Forman urges Ontarians, in particular, to take note of the report because there's a provincial election on June 2.

"We absolutely have to vote for climate action," he said. "The scientists say that this is the time, now, where we can still turn things around, but we don't have a big window. And so we absolutely have to vote for candidates that are committed to real climate action."

EV use part of federal response

Forman said the federal government has made some movement in the right direction. The government has committed to helping municipalities buy electric buses and have incentives to buy electric vehicles.

But Canada needs more funding into renewable energy, and the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by the end of the decade doesn't go far enough, he said.

"We actually need to be probably at 50 or 60 per cent reductions."

CBC News reached out to the office of federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault for comment on the study, but has not yet received a response.

Time to make plans to adapt

Both Eyquem and Feltmate add there is still time to make change, but the focus now needs to also be on how to prepare and adapt for what's to come.

"In Canada we very much have a kind of cold climate mentality. We're more worried about heating than we are about cooling," Eyquem said. "Climate risk is baked into our future already, and we need to adapt to that."

Feltmate added that climate change is "irreversible, period."

"Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions will slow down the rate of change, but it's not going to reverse the situation. So we need to better prepare and we need to better prepare with a greater sense of urgency than is currently on the table."

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.

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