N.L. is getting hotter. As Europe bakes, experts paint a picture of climate change at home

·4 min read
Hot, humid days have defined summer across Newfoundland and Labrador this year, and while the weather hasn't reached the extremes felt in London this week, experts say this season could become the norm. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press - image credit)
Hot, humid days have defined summer across Newfoundland and Labrador this year, and while the weather hasn't reached the extremes felt in London this week, experts say this season could become the norm. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press - image credit)

As parts of Europe sizzle under extreme heat that's melting asphalt and killing hundreds, Newfoundland and Labrador — cushioned by the frigid North Atlantic, and used to milder, wetter weather — can count itself relatively lucky, despite a warmer than normal summer this year.

But maybe not for long.

"If I just take a look at average temperatures, we've been steadily creeping up for a while," said Joel Finnis, a climatologist in Memorial University of Newfoundland's geography department.

In the last 30 years, Finnis said, average temperatures have slowly ticked upward. In the last five years alone, four were well above normal.

"It all sort of paints a picture of us moving toward warmer and warmer summers," he said Wednesday. "And those changes aren't theoretical. They're not based on projections and climate models. That's what we're seeing right now."

Average temperatures across the province have been nearly two degrees higher than usual this summer, confirms David Neil, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, thanks to a flow of warm air from the southwest.

While the province hasn't been breaking many records, we're seeing hotter days for longer stretches of time: precisely what climate experts say we can expect as the planet warms.

"There's evidence that the jet stream is weakening," says Kent Moore, an atmospheric physics professor at the University of Toronto.

Those constant eastward winds, which blow about 10 kilometres into the atmosphere, are responsible for moving air around, he explains. The weaker the wind, the more likely weather patterns will remain in a region for a longer period of time.

As the planet warms, it could mean longer heat waves in places like Europe — and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Moore adds the jet stream also appears to be moving farther north and south, what's known in physics as an increase in wave amplitude.

"There's a more of a chance of warm air from Bermuda getting up into St. John's," Moore said.

More fires, droughts?

A drier summer has already cooked forests in eastern Newfoundland, prompting several forest fires in the last week.

Although the province's fire risk is now considered low, fire bans remain in place for the metro region. Neil says we shouldn't see that as an anomaly moving forward.

"Just looking at weather patterns on the island … any time those winds aren't coming straight off the water, then certainly you're going to get those warm and dry conditions, which will lead to a few fires popping up," he said.

It's not just wildfires to watch out for.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

"People aren't used to seeing temperatures even in the 30s," Finnis says.

"And as a result, we haven't built our houses for them. We haven't built our work lives for them. We haven't adapted our way to moving to the world, our activity patterns, to deal with those kinds of temperatures. So even temperatures regularly in the 30s would cause some serious problems for Newfoundlanders."

One degree, serious consequences

The global climate average has risen by only a degree in the last century. But Moore and Finnis both point out how much chaos that single degree has already caused.

"I think that the last couple of years have really driven home the fact that even just small increases in average temperature translates to very harmful, potentially costly shifts and extremes," Finnis says.

Although the average temperature isn't expected to climb more than "a handful of degrees" in the coming decades, it's those extreme waves of hot weather that pose a threat, he adds.

It'll mean watching our water availability, figuring out how to design flood-resistant infrastructure and plan to keep vulnerable people cool in a place where air conditioning is often a luxury.

"We've built cities around the assumption that fossil fuels will be abundant and cheap and available and we can use them without consequence," Finnis said.

"We need to rethink that in light of climate change. We need to start thinking about how we can redesign cities, rebuild our homes, rethink our working lives."

So could the mercury in St. John's or Gander ever hit 40 C?

"I don't think we're going to see it any time soon, but honestly, who knows?" Finnis says. "And when I say who knows, what I mean is we're moving toward a warmer and warmer world all the time.

"And that warmer world brings a lot of surprises for us."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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