Police in western Canada say extreme heat may be linked to dozens of “sudden” deaths, as the record temperatures prompted the province of British Columbia to close schools, issue flood warnings from glacier melts and urge people to stay indoors.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, said it had responded “to more than 25 sudden death calls” in a 24-hour period since Monday.
While the deaths are still under investigation, the police force said heat was believed to have been “a contributing factor” in the majority of them. Many of the deceased were seniors, it said.
“Check on your neighbours, check on family members, check on seniors you may know,” Burnaby RCMP spokesman Mike Kalanj said.
“We are seeing this weather can be deadly for vulnerable members of our community, especially the elderly and those with underlying health issues. It is imperative we check on one another during this extreme heat.”
The RCMP in Surrey, another city in the greater Vancouver area, said the police force had responded to 22 “sudden death calls” on Monday and another 13 by midday on Tuesday.
“While the causes of death has not yet been determined in each of these cases, we can confirm that Surrey RCMP is responding to a higher than usual number of deaths since the beginning of the extreme weather conditions,” Constable Sarbjit Sangha told the Surrey Now-Leader newspaper.
Social media posts with tips on staying cool without air conditioners went viral on Monday in a province where less than 40 percent of homes have air conditioning.
Lytton, a town in central British Columbia roughly 200km (124 miles) north of Vancouver, reported a temperature of 46.6°C (115.88°F) on Sunday. Prior to the weekend, the historical high in Canada was 45°C, set in Saskatchewan in 1937, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The high sustained heat is unusual to the Pacific Northwest, which is more accustomed to long bouts of rain than sun, and is caused by a high-pressure system that is not moving, said Greg Flato, a senior research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada based in Victoria.
“Temperatures get very hot during the day, they don’t cool off that much of the night and they stay relatively stationary, as opposed to the usual kind of weather events here on the West Coast … that come in across the Pacific [Ocean] and sweep across us,” Flato said.
“It drives home the point that climate is changing. Science has been telling us for a long time but to be actually immersed in it, as we are here and having to sleep down in the basement to stay cool – it really drives that home.”
Other Canadians also raised concerns about the effects of global warming on the country.
“Climate change is a public health emergency and we need to treat it like one,” BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau said on Twitter. “BC is now facing a reality of extreme weather events or forest fires every single summer.”
‘Steroids for weather’
David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, told CTV News that climate change tends to make heatwaves and other weather events more volatile and extreme, describing it as “steroids for weather”.
BC broke a record for the most 911 calls received as emergency operators took about 8,000 messages on Friday.
BC authorities issued a number of flood-watch notices in response to accelerated snowmelt rates. Natural Resources Canada warned of “extreme” wildfire risks.
“Temperatures are in uncharted territory,” said Yan Boulanger, a forest ecologist with the department. “Those indices for forest fire are very, very high right now.”