Glimpse of the year 2050 in the summer of 2021

Extreme climate events will become more common and more severe as the planet heats up

Quamrul Haider

A leaked upcoming Assessment Report of the UN climate science advisory body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scheduled for release in February 2022, paints a rather distressing picture of the devastating effects of climate change in the coming decades. According to the report, even if greenhouse gas emissions begin a downward slide, “current levels of adaptation will be inadequate” because the impacts of climate change—global warming, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, destructive floods and devastating storms, to mention a few—are already baked into the climate system of our planet. It further warns that “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.”

This is not the first time IPCC has tried to raise awareness about climate change. In previous reports, it repeatedly cautioned that if we do not achieve net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050, our planet will cross the climate tipping points or thresholds that, when exceeded, will trigger self-perpetuating irreversible loops in the natural world. We will be warned of a bleak future again by the world leaders at their next annual road show, the 26th COP, to be held later this year in Glasgow.

We do not need another report or road show to highlight that climate change will have “profound negative effects for humanity and other species, affecting numerous aspects of life.” And we may not have to wait until 2050 to witness the havoc climate change will wreak on our planet. The summer of 2021 will suffice to give us a glimpse of the future.

We are only a few weeks into official summer, yet in late June, the characteristically cool Pacific Northwest of the United States and western Canada have turned into a seething cauldron. The blistering heat, uncontrollable wildfires, intensifying drought and a powerful fire tornado are a stark reminder of how climate change is signalling its relentless onward march by loading the weather dice against us.

The dangerous “heat dome” enveloping the region shattered temperature records by such large margins that it is making even climate scientists freak out. Portland, the largest city in Oregon, broke its all-time high, topping out at a sizzling 46.7 degrees Celsius. Around the same time, Seattle soared to a sweltering 42.2 degrees—significantly hotter than the average June highs that are in the mid-twenties. Perhaps the most oppressive heatwave occurred in Lytton, a small village nestled among mountain ranges in British Columbia, where the temperature skyrocketed to a staggering 49.4 degrees. The hellish heat was followed by a raging wildfire that destroyed 90 percent of the village.

Hundreds have died due to heat-related ailments in this part of the world. Additionally, infrastructure across the region could not handle the intense heat. Roads and bridges buckled and cracked due to thermal expansion, making them unsafe to travel on. Rail services and street cars were shut down out of fear that high temperatures could warp the tracks, as well as strain the power grid and melt the overhead wires that power the trains.

As if air temperatures during the record setting heatwave were not bad enough, imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-3 satellite showed that ground temperatures in Wenatchee, Washington, reached an astounding 62.8 degrees, surpassing the temperature in the hottest spot in North America—54.4 degrees at the Death Valley in California.

The heatwave is afflicting Nordic countries, too. Lapland in Finland’s northernmost Arctic region recorded its hottest temperature for more than a century. At 33.6 degrees, it is a degree shy of the all-time high set in July 1914. In neighbouring Norway, temperatures in the Saltdal municipality, located close to the Arctic Circle, rose to 34 degrees. Several parts of the world are also experiencing crushing heatwaves this summer. Clearly, we are running out of safe havens to hide or escape from the wrath of climate change.

In Bangladesh, the dog days of summer loudly announced its arrival in April when the country recorded its highest temperatures in seven years—over 40 degrees in Jashore and Rajshahi a week after Pahela Baishakh. About that same time, Dhaka experienced the hottest day in eight years, with the mercury rising to 39.5 degrees. Given that temperatures in Bangladesh may not be as high as in the Pacific Northwest or western Canada, the heat is nevertheless more stifling because of excessive moisture in the air.

Also, day and night temperatures during the heatwave remained nearly unchanged across Bangladesh. But our biological clock that regulates sleeping, walking, eating and other cyclic activities is based to a large extent on a day-night cycle with variations in temperature. However, with constant temperature, these circadian rhythms can be hopelessly out of sync with the natural world.

As for the unprecedented hot spell in the northwestern part of North America, it is a consequence of a self-reinforcing heat dome, which is a sprawling area of a persistent and strong high pressure system up in the atmosphere that traps warm ocean air, just like a lid on a boiling pot that traps steam at high pressure and temperature. As the air descends and gets compressed, it heats up, pushing temperatures upward. At the same time, the dome, worsened by human-induced climate change, keeps clouds from forming by inhibiting upward vertical motion in the atmosphere. Oddly enough, it is this same phenomenon that produces extremely cold temperatures in the winter.

The heat dome is not just warming the air near the Earth’s surface. It is also warming mountainous areas, where temperatures are rising faster than elsewhere. A 2015 study found that at elevations above 2,000 metres where snow and ice are receding or disappearing, the exposed soil is warming about 75 percent faster than places at lower elevations.

Against this backdrop, the odds of global temperatures rising by two degrees before 2050 are very high. Until recently, such a rise set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accord was considered to be a relatively “safe level of change.” Recent heatwaves suggest otherwise. Climate scientists worry that deadly heatwaves and extreme climate events will become more common and more severe as the planet heats up as a result of burning fossil fuels. In fact, another heatwave descending on Southern California is expected to push temperatures into record-breaking territory in the region’s high desert and interior valleys.

What made the recent heatwave so remarkable is the margin by which it shattered old records and how it exceeded predictions by worst-case climate models. This hints that some kind of a larger climate shift, a shift toward the worse, is in play. Indeed, the first few weeks of the summer of 2021 are heralding a climate reality that we were expecting in the year 2050.

So what should we do to stave off a nightmare scenario? Effective action to tackle the challenges posed by climate change is dependent not just on sound science, but on the political will of our leaders. Science can provide critical insights and show us the path, while leaders have the power to walk the path. Unfortunately, world leaders whose decisions matter have failed to realise that climate change is the most urgent issue with a time scale of a few generations, and that it deserves a concerted effort by all the stakeholders to save the only place in the Universe we can call home.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Date:  Jul 18, 2021 12:00 AM