Warmer is not better
By Cécile Wilson
[Note: Here and in future articles, I will include the most recent parts-per-million (ppm) reading of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere, recorded at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. For comparison, the pre-industrial baseline of CO2 is estimated at about 280 ppm; the reading for April 24, 2022 was 420.51.]
CO2 ppm as of April 23, 2023: 423.64.
The march upwards
May is lovely. Trees are in leaf, tulips and spring perennials are in bloom, gardeners eagerly anticipate planting their gardens and birds are nesting. The whole world seems brimming with energy.
May holds promise, but it can also hold surprises, as we saw with last year’s derecho. A look at the weather data for Ottawa last May reminds us that, although the month had a comfortable average maximum temperature of 22.5 degrees, we experienced four days of 30 or higher, and three of those were before May 15. In total, we had 11 days at 25 or higher.
If you think those averages are warmer than usual, you are right. From 2016 to 2021 (excluding 2020, for which the data was incomplete on the Government of Canada website), the highest average temperature was 21.1. May 2022 also had the greatest number of days above 30 for those years.
Our rainfall was above average, too. Looking at May precipitation amounts in five-year increments from 1950, rainfall typically measured between 30 and 80 mm. Last year, we received 114.6 mm of rain in May, far less than the 172.4 mm we received in 2017 but substantial nonetheless.
Although variations in temperature and rainfall are to be expected, the trend both locally and globally is an increase in the number of warmer days. From a world-wide perspective, 2022 was in the top 10 warmest years on record. Twenty-eight countries broke temperature records.
Curiously, these records occurred during an extended period of La Niña weather conditions. La Niña prevails when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean around the equator is cooler than usual. The interaction of ocean temperature, air temperature, rainfall, air pressure and the circulation of the atmosphere and the ocean is referred to as the El Niño Southerly Oscillation or ENSO.
An El Niño event, on the other hand, develops when the ocean temperature and rainfall in the equatorial Pacific are higher than normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. predicts there is a 62-per-cent chance that El Niño conditions will develop sometime between May and July this year and an 80-per-cent chance that we will be in an El Niño by fall. With an El Niño in place, we can expect even hotter temperatures to occur.
Adaptation and mitigation
Our experiences with the May derecho and the ice storm this April make it clear that we need adaptive strategies to deal with more frequent extreme weather. These strategies include using sandbags in times of flood, planting native plants that are more drought and heat resistant, and making sure that trees are kept healthy and properly pruned to minimize storm damage.
Adaptation, though, does not address the primary cause of increased occurrences of extreme weather. To lessen the threats to our safety and the reliability of our food and water supplies, we need to mitigate climate change.
Think of mitigation as a synonym for prevention. Adaptation to climate extremes can help reduce some of their negative effects, but in the long term, the most effective response to climate change is to reduce the emissions that are the cause of global warming and climate destabilization.
Power to the people
The insistence of fossil fuel company executives and banking CEOs that we will need fossil fuels for a long time to come and that a transition to cleaner energy must be “orderly” (codeword for “slow”) is frustrating and, frankly, dangerous. Delays in transitioning already lead to deadly consequences from heatwaves, floods and storms both here in Canada and around the world.
But we don’t need to delay our own responses to the climate crisis.
We already have the technology we need to make significant reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions. Here in Ottawa, there are many people who can help you start your own transition off fossil fuels. Aside from fossil fuel production, transportation and heating are the highest sources of GHGs.
If you are thinking about switching to an electric vehicle, get in contact with the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa (evco.ca). For a detailed analysis of the most effective way to reduce your heating related GHGs, contact the Building Science Trust at 613-981-2612. If you’d like to discuss the many ways to lessen fossil fuel use in your home with like-minded people, check out Electrify613’s Slack channel.
It’s time to return power to the people!
Cecile Wilson is a Glebe resident with an abiding passion for and knowledge about the environment.