So, how was your summer?
It seems a very long time ago, those images of straggling columns of tourists — evacuees from resorts on the Greek islands dragging lobster-burnt children and wheelie bags. Over 30,000 heading towards docks or beaches for a Dunkirk-style rescue from their holiday-turned-fiery-nightmare.
Later we learned of more desperate escapes, too frantic for smartphone video. Staff and holiday-makers running headlong into the sea to escape an inferno. Terrifying, barely imaginable moments repeated through the summer from the Mediterranean to Maui.
Those pictures of stricken families in Rhodes felt seared into memory at the time. But later superseded in a grim palimpsest of climate horrors. So many more evacuations: columns on foot, caravans of gridlocked vehicles, queues snaking towards airports, cars melting as drivers raced through tunnels of angry flame. Algeria, the Canary Islands, France, Portugal and Spain. Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia (the Lytton First Nation, yet again) and, of course, the North: K'atl'odeeche First Nation, Enterprise, Fort Smith, Hay River. Over 20,000 forced to flee from the territorial capital, Yellowknife.
If you weren’t directly affected, you could almost be forgiven for forgetting the fires that erupted in Nova Scotia, utterly blindsiding Maritimers before the northern summer even officially began.
And then, the perversity of atmospheric physics — floods as well as fires. “The heaviest rain ever” in Japan. More evacuations in Spain, the Philippines, Myanmar, Slovenia, Sudan. Just this week, record rains in Saudi Arabia, deadly flooding in Turkey and Bulgaria and Greece. “I'm afraid the careless summers, as we knew them ... will cease to exist,” said the Greek prime minister. “From now on, the coming summers are likely to be ever more difficult.”
There was widespread snickering over mud-bound Burning Man but the floods in China are no joke — cars, homes and people washed away as Fuzhou received 554 millimetres (1.8 feet) of rain on Tuesday, an hourly record of almost 150 millimetres (0.5 ft.). Hong Kong appears to have recorded even greater torrents this week — 158.1 millimetres in an hour.
Catastrophic flooding unfolding in Chai Wan, Hong Kong 🇭🇰— Scott Duncan (@ScottDuncanWX) September 7, 2023
158.1mm of rain fell in just one hour. This breaks the heaviest one hour rainfall record. Records date back to 1884.
🎥 via @yangyubin1998pic.twitter.com/Pu1b7suJCF
And all this climate chaos against the silent backdrop of searing heat. Burn units filled with patients who passed out and were seared by the sidewalks and roads of Phoenix, Ariz., where concrete reached 150 F (66 C). The fifth-largest city in the U.S. topped 110 F (43 C) for 31 consecutive days.
As you probably know, we had the hottest day in 120,000 years this summer while ocean temperatures as well as sea ice loss around Antarctica absolutely shattered records.
Globally, “it was the hottest August on record — by a large margin,” according to Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. August as a whole is estimated to have been about 1.5 degrees above the pre-fossil fuel era. The only hotter month in the historical record was July. And, as you can see, this summer was a marked jump from previous records.
Is it worse than expected? That’s a big question simmering in climate circles. As a very general breakdown, it appears that scientists who study impacts and specific regions are shocked to see the scale of impacts, hitting sooner than expected. Scientists who track the broad trends insist we’re tracking within the range of their predictions, albeit along the high end. Frustratingly, it’s not a question science can answer quickly — one year could be a freak. Sober scientists will have to observe the averages over time.
It’s a strange quirk of psychology but in some weird way, worse than expected feels better than the alternative. At least that was my reaction to Barry Saxifrage’s latest charts tracking carbon and Canada’s forests.
This summer’s ferocious forest fires must surely be freakishly “off the charts”? The various fire agencies kept saying so, repeatedly extending their Y-axes at one press conference after another. The scale is mind-boggling — well over half the world’s countries are smaller than the area burned this year. The fires have spewed about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide so far (more than double the 670 million tonnes Canada officially reports for the entire economy).
And yet, “it fits the curve,” Saxifrage told me after crunching the numbers. Never has that old expression from math class felt so chilling. Before the turn-of-the-century, forests were sucking up carbon, on balance. But 2001 was a tipping point: “Logging, wildfires, insects and the many forms of decay are now turning trees into CO2 faster than the forest can grow back,” says Saxifrage.
Every year since 2001 Canada’s forests have disgorged more and more carbon than they’ve sequestered. The “curve” of cumulative CO2 is shocking when it’s laid out. And sure enough, “As extreme as this year’s wildfire emissions have been, they are just the latest escalation in a multi-decade flood of CO₂ pouring out of Canada’s ‘managed’ forests and forestry.”
The New York Times covered Saxifrage’s analysis, zeroing in on the role of logging forests that are already in such trouble and highlighting the looming question of where this is all headed:
“In theory at least, there is a lot more to hemorrhage,” writes David Wallace-Wells in Forests are no longer our climate friends. “The 3.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide released by Canada’s forests since 2001 are only a small fraction of the 100 billion tons stored in its trees and soil.
“It all seems very Canadian. This is a country that promotes itself as a soft-spoken environmentalist leader, endowed with an endless forest landscape, but which nevertheless expands its pipelines, mocks the idea of leaving fossil fuels in the ground and routinely arrests climate activists.”
Canada is one of the few countries with more per capita emissions than the United States,” Wallace-Wells continues. “In fact, its overall carbon production has actually grown since 1990, with the country producing more than 20 per cent more carbon dioxide in 2019 than it did three decades earlier.”
Ouch. It may be incredibly annoying to be chastised by Americans given their preposterous politics and the world’s biggest oil and gas industry, but there’s no denying the U.S. cut climate pollution over the same period.