By Jim Poling Sr.
I’ve been worrying about my granddog Rusty who has been suffering through the West Coast heat wave.
Rusty has a daily walk and on a recent outing during unusually warm temperatures he began panting heavily. His mom took him home immediately, gave him more water to drink, and washed his paws and head to cool him.
The time it took to slow his panting was a concern, but he recovered nicely and of course was anxious to get out for another walk.
Rusty’s incident shows us just how dangerous our increasingly frequent, and severe, heat waves are becoming. They are affecting the health of humans and their pets, notably dogs who are difficult to keep cool because they sweat mainly through their feet and don’t cool effectively with fans.
The heat has been killing hundreds of people in the Canadian and U.S. West. There is no point trying to give actual numbers because many jurisdictions do not have the same criteria for labelling deaths from severe heat exposure.
No matter what the accurate numbers, Canadians and Americans are dying of the heat more often and in greater numbers than any time before.
Some researchers say the heat that has caused hospitalizations, deaths and fires out west in the past couple of weeks is not a once-a-year event. Severe heat events are a developing health emergency that has the potential to become as serious as the current COVID-19 emergency.
A study published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change found that 37 per cent of the world’s heat-related deaths are due to higher temperatures from human-caused climate change.
A couple of weeks ago the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices issued a report calling for action to help us all adapt to the new reality of extreme heat from climate change.
“Climate change is an escalating public health emergency, and we need to start treating it that way,” said the introduction to the report.
U.S. climate assessments predict there will be 20 to 30 more 90-degree Fahrenheit days a year in most parts of that country by the middle of this century. Extreme heat already is a leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, killing an average of 600 or more a year between 1999 and 2009.
An earlier Canadian study predicted that by 2050 major Canadian cities will experience four times the number of extreme heat days than they did less than 10 years ago. Cities can become high heat islands because their buildings absorb heat and because they lack plentiful greenspaces with protective tree canopies.
Increasing extreme heat events impact more than our health.
Agriculture is endangered by high temperatures because some crops require cool nights. Hot nights also stress livestock, causing milk output to decline in cows They also cause slower growth and reduced conception rates.
Hot nights also deprive roads and buildings of cool down time and result in deformed concrete and asphalt.
Research, and even what we are seeing and feeling in recent summers, tell us that government urgently needs to do serious planning on how to adapt to and deal with the consequences of extreme heat events. They need to identify and plan for protection of vulnerable populations, for more cooling centres and how to use heat-reflecting products for roofs and for roads.
Nature, as usual, has some of the answers for protection against extreme heat. Trees and other vegetation are known to reduce temperatures through shade and transpiration in which tiny water droplets are released by tree leaves, providing water vapour that cools the surrounding air.
The problem is that we are knocking down more trees every year. Various studies show that despite some improvements in recent years the world still is losing too many of its trees.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the area of primary forest worldwide has decreased by over 80 million hectares since 1990.
Trees can be a major factor in helping us all get through the horrors of predicted future extreme heat events.
There are impressive tree planting programs seen throughout the world. But some scientists say that planting more trees is not the best approach to having more protective forests.
The best approach is to reduce the number of trees we all cut.