Extreme heat contributed to the deaths of 595 people in British Columbia during 2021, according to the provincial coroner’s office, and the situation could get worse. With extreme heatwaves expected to become more common, the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation argues it is past time for action from all levels of Canadian society.
The Centre’s new report, titled Irreversible Extreme Heat: Protecting Canadians from a Lethal Future, argues, “To avoid worsening impacts, fatalities and costs resulting from rising temperatures, swift action is required.”
“I think last year was maybe a wake-up call to a lot of people that this is a Canadian issue,” said Joanna Eyquem, Intact’s director of climate-resilient infrastructure and one of the authors of the report along with the centre’s head, Dr. Blair Feltmate.
She offered an analogy based on Canada’s traditional moderate climate: “We previously had a mindset maybe about heating our hands and not so much about cooling our homes. But I think 2021 really brought it home that this is a problem, and it’s going to get worse.”
The Intact Centre is an applied research centre at the university founded in 2015 with a gift from Intact Financial Corporation, Canada’s largest property and casualty insurer.
The areas in Canada with the potential to be the hardest hit by heatwaves are the valleys between the West Coast and the Rocky Mountains in B.C., prairie communities bordering the U.S, and north of Lake Erie through the St. Lawrence River Valley in Ontario and Quebec.
The report contains four main recommendations after consultations with over 60 experts in a variety of fields. It starts with the suggestion governments and other organizations should recognize extreme heat events as natural disasters, something the National Building Code currently does not do.
The other recommendations are:
– public health agencies and similar groups should expand their messaging to include risk reduction for heat-related events;
– public and private sectors should co-operate on energy efficiency investments such as tree planting;
– and home inspections evaluations like EnerGuide should include recommendations on increasing the dwelling’s resilience to extreme heat.
Those at risk from extreme heat
The report also breaks down the Canadian cities and their surrounding areas most at risk from extreme heatwaves in two scenarios: a future low-carbon environment, or “if we do nothing,” as Eyquem puts it.
The rankings are based on projections between the years 2051 and 2080. In the worst-case scenario Windsor, Ont. is predicted to have the most amount of days over 30ºC in a year at 79. Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, Ont. is in 10th place at 54 days.
During a heatwave, the worst-case scenarios for warmest maximum temperatures would be in Kelowna, B.C. at 40.2ºC. Toronto is in 10th at 38.4ºC.
Kelowna also tops the list of predicted average length of heatwaves, at 11.2 days. Montreal rounds out the top 10 at 7.8 days.
The report says 17 million people live in the Canadian metropolitan areas most susceptible to extreme heat.
A heatwave occurs when the temperature reaches or exceeds 30ºC for three consecutive days.
Extreme heat risk reduction
A major focus of the report is the measures individuals, landowners and governments can take to reduce extreme heat risks. Listed alongside each of the 35 measures — sectioned into behavioural, nature-based, and buildings and infrastructure — are the possible benefits that can arise.
An example of this would be using LED lightbulbs that produce almost no heat, and also save electricity and money. Another is to place more plants in peoples’ homes, which both absorb heat and according to some studies, make people significantly happier.
“We can adapt and make our lives better,” Eyquem said. “I think that’s a message that touches people as well, because it’s how that impacts on their life, rather than just this kind of nebulous climate adaptation issue.”
On the more systemic fixes needed, the report states “There is no current code or standard in any Canadian jurisdiction that addresses sustained, area-wide power outages that affect a multi-unit residential building when there is no emergency in the building itself.” Meaning should a power outage occur, thousands could be left without air conditioning with no recourse.
Another suggestion is to install reflective or permeable pavements. Not only would reducing the surface temperature of pavement produce less heat, it would slow or reduce the pavement’s risk of premature failure.
Individual measures such as networks to check up on seniors or people who require additional assistance, or learning how to create drafts in one’s home are included in the report, but individual actions have their limits.
“I think building owners, managers and landlords have a key role because tenants have less power to make changes, potentially,” Eyquem said. “We wrote the report with that in mind.”
Canada has seen mean average temperatures rise 1.7ºC between 1948 and 2016.
Eyquem sees this report as a companion to the centre’s previously published studies on flood and wildfire risks in Canada.
In the wake of those previous papers, the centre subsequently issued simple PDF guides to help individuals mitigate risks. She looks forward to doing the same for the extreme heat report.
“We see the top three risks as flood, fire and extreme heat, so we’re very excited to launch this foundational report on heat and then build from there and get the actions implemented,” Eyquem said.