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Study: Pacific NW Heatwave ‘Impossible’ Without Climate Change

The deadly heatwave that roasted the Pacific Northwest and western Canada was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change that added a few extra degrees to the record-smashing temperatures, a new quick scientific analysis found.

An international team of 27 scientists calculated that climate change increased chances of the extreme heat occurring by at least 150 times, but likely much more. The study, which has not yet been reviewed by their peers, said that before the industrial era, the region’s late June triple-digit heat was the type that would not have happened in human civilization. And even in today’s warming world, it said, the heat was a once-in-a-millennium event.

But that once-in-a-millennium event would likely occur every five to 10 years once the world warms another 1.4 degrees (0.8 degrees Celsius), said Wednesday’s study from World Weather Attribution. That much warming could be 40 or 50 years away if carbon pollution continues at its current pace, one study author said.

In Canada, billions of small sea animals like mussels, clams, and snails were literally cooked to death in their own shells by the heat from the sun.

This type of extreme heat “would go from essentially virtually impossible to relatively commonplace,” said study co-author Gabriel Vecchi, a Princeton University climate scientist. “That is a huge change.”

The study also found that in the Pacific Northwest and Canada climate change was responsible for about 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius) of the heat shock. Those few degrees make a big difference in human health, said study co-author Kristie Ebi, a professor at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington. “This study is telling us climate change is killing people,” said Ebi, who endured the blistering heat in Seattle. She said it will be many months before a death toll can be calculated from June’s blast of heat but it’s likely to be hundreds or thousands. “Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer of Americans.”

 

What made the Northwest heatwave so remarkable is how much hotter it was than old records and what climate models had predicted. Scientists say this hints that some kind of larger climate shift could be in play, and in places that they didn’t expect. In Oregon alone, the state medical examiner on Wednesday reported 116 deaths related to the heatwave.

“Without climate change, this event would not have happened,” said study senior author Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford. University of Victoria, BC, climate scientist Andrew Weaver concurred with his colleague.

“This was the worst I’ve ever seen,” Weaver said in reaction to the high temperatures in Canada. “But you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he added. “It’s going to get a lot worse.”



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