Last week, after rampant forest fires had decimated thousands of hectares of his homeland, and burned alive dozens of his countrymen, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin boarded an amphibious aircraft to witness the blazes for himself. Within a few minutes of sitting in the passenger compartment, Putin—never one to resist a fight, or a photo op for that matter—strode briskly to the cockpit and assumed the co-pilot’s seat and headset. Upon direction, Putin, who doesn’t have his flying licence, swooped down and drew 12 tonnes of water from the Oka River, and then doused the scorching forests beneath, extinguishing two fires. All this in 30 minutes.
As superheroic as this act may have seemed, it fell drastically short: below, hundreds more raging ﬁres were turning lush trees into charred toothpicks. At least 2,000 homes have burned down, including 341 in less than an hour. Survivors found nothing but scrap metal, which they gathered up to sell off. Farmers, meanwhile, have seen their grain crop cut by a third, and counting.
The only thing spreading faster than the ﬁres is fear: that dangerous radioactive material on land contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster will be churned up, for instance. Experts insist that a far more realistic and deadly threat is the toxic smog that has blanketed Russia in a sepia haze ever since daily temperatures surged to 40° C and higher—hotter than it’s been there since the 11th century, the Russian weather service chief said. Government officials have warned that breathing the polluted air is like smoking multiple packs of cigarettes a day, so Russians have taken to wearing those face masks ubiquitous to disasters, most recently the H1N1 scare. They’ve also retreated to the lakes to cool off, but even this activity has been lethal: swilling too much vodka before swimming led to more than 1,000 drownings in June alone, when the heat wave began.
Before then, “Russians would have laughed if you had asked them if this would happen,” says Ghassem R. Asrar, director of the World Climate Research Programme at the UN’s World Meteorological Organization.
Normal summer temperatures there hover in the low 20s in the hottest parts. Imagining the “Great Russian heat wave of 2010,” as this hot spell has been dubbed, would have been preposterous. “They’d have said it’s like being in Saudi Arabia,” Asrar told Maclean’s.
Except that even Saudi Arabia’s weather has been extraordinary this summer, with temperatures reaching above 47° C. In fact, record heat has occurred in 17 countries, including Pakistan, where on May 26, the mercury hit 53.5° C—suffocating four people to death. Since then, the heat has given way to the unthinkable: catastrophic floods, which have killed at least 1,600 Pakistanis and ruined the homes and livelihoods of more than 20 million others. There are concerns of a cholera outbreak, and the country is now facing a shortage of drinking water. The UN, which has appealed for $460 million in immediate international aid, has called this the greatest humanitarian crisis in history—more devastating than the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined. The funds have been slow in coming, though, and some worry that the Taliban will step in instead. Worse still, there is no end in sight: forecasters warn more floods are coming, and urge “all the concerned authorities . . . to take necessary precautionary measures to avoid/minimize loss of lives and infrastructure.”
On the spectrum of extreme weather, Pakistan and Russia are obviously the worst effected. But new data shows that the whole world is experiencing unprecedented levels of radical weather. In June, the global land and ocean average surface temperature was the hottest it’s been since 1880, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States began keeping records. And July was the 305th consecutive month that the global temperature was above average, meaning the last time the mercury dipped unusually low was in February 1985.
Even Canada’s distinction as a moderate country hasn’t safeguarded us from outrageous weather patterns: heat waves in Ontario and Quebec have caused power outages this summer and sent a record 158 people to one Ottawa ER in a single day. Hundreds of wildfires are engulfing portions of British Columbia. And after severe droughts in the spring, the Prairies have been flooded.
If this strange and severe weather was once hard to imagine, it’s now hard to ignore. “Extreme events are becoming more common,” says Heidi Cullen, a climatologist based in Princeton, N.J., and author of the new book, The Weather of the Future. What is happening in Russia and Pakistan may not feel like a real threat to North America, but she says “it should feel real.” As the Earth continues to heat up, “who is to say that couldn’t happen in Canada or the United States?” Cullen asks. “It will happen eventually.” Asrar agrees. “We will see more extremes, and they’ll last longer and be very strong.” In other words, he says, in the future “anything is possible.”
To understand how extreme weather is becoming more common, scientists start by looking back. Over the last 100 years, the global average temperature has steadily increased by a little more than 1° F. That doesn’t seem like much. But if a typical day is going to be warmer, then the heat waves will be as well. This also affects storm activity: the hotter it gets, the more heat the oceans absorb. The heat evaporates into the atmosphere as water vapour. Warm air can hold more water vapour than cold air, so once the atmosphere is saturated, it dumps exceptional amounts of rain.
Using computer models, scientists from 20 climate centres around the world have forecast that by the end of the century, the Earth’s temperature will increase by at least 2° F. “When you add it up over the entire planet, that’s a huge amount of heat,” says Asrar. It’s also an average, he emphasizes. “This warming is not going to be uniform globally, and the problems that we’re going to experience are going to [vary] by region.”