The Local Climate – Chilling Heat

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You should know that, while writing this, I’m very freezing. I had too much faith in public buildings and their ability to combat the coldest couple days of the year. My legs and shoulders are signaling their slow surrender and I’m in no way enjoying it. Please understand I’m a fan of neither cold nor winter, but what frightens me more than running out of firewood in February is the disappearance of our iconically cold winters altogether.

I’ve heard entertaining claims that global warming is caused by an overactive sun and not by the otherworldly sums of greenhouse gas we’ve forced into the atmosphere. Some critical thinking and the application of available scientific evidence dispels this idea. Were the sun warming our planet more so now than in centuries past, that warming would be distributed evenly throughout the atmosphere. Instead we’ve observed the lower atmosphere heating rapidly and the upper atmosphere cooling slightly, precisely what you’d expect from a diligent greenhouse effect. What’s more, if the sun were the culprit you’d expect the majority of average temperature rise to be during the day, or in summer. Instead, most of our unseasonal warming has been in winter and over night.

We’re losing our extreme cold days, with the occasional exception of distabilized arctic cyclones and major volcanic eruptions. Just recently I had the pleasure of meeting climatologist Dr. Adam Fenech, director of UPEI’s Climate Lab, and while his numbers were collected on the Island, they certainly have relevance for the remainder of the Maritimes.

At this point my fingers are becoming stiff.

His figures were chilling (as in startling), illustrating this warming trend with data going back decades, in some cases centuries. Extreme hot days, which are characterized as above 27.5 °C, were quite rare on the Island at one time. Years would pass without any, but nowadays extreme heat hits us roughly eight times each year, twice the historical average. Last year there were twelve on PEI, one so severe it resulted in heat warnings.

Extreme cold is defined as anything below -20 °C, such as on the day of this writing. Such days are about half as common as they were 140 years ago, and last year there were none at all. This has been accompanied by unnaturally warm Aprils, heat spikes in May, and Decembers without snow. Dr Fenech said Island Decembers are about 2.5 °C warmer today than historically.

You might be tempted to praise these trends in much the same fashion I would praise a pair of long johns, but the calamities of global warming, and the realities of Maritime life, force us to consider the big picture. Agricultural and forest pests, especially the invasive ones, aren’t dying off quite so readily as they used to over winter, and new pests still, carrying new diseases, are encroaching on the Great White North. Precipitation patterns are becoming concentrated, pummeling our soils some days with tropical intensity, then leaving us in the lurch for weeks at a time. Wildlife will struggle with weather patterns they’ve never faced before, compromising their food supplies; I recall one Nova Scotian winter which starved the province’s American woodcocks. These things are hitting us already, and will only get worse.

Recognizing the perils in the near and long term to life in the Maritimes, I wish, against the numbness of my toes, that it were colder still.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.