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'Headshaking' heat wave set to shatter high-temperature records in Western Canada


Much of British Columbia, Alberta and parts of Yukon and the Northwest Territories are sweltering under a “heat dome” that is set to shatter historic high-temperature records over the next week.

Three provinces, including B.C., Alberta, and parts of western Saskatchewan, as well as two territories are under heat warnings this weekend, with temperatures set to soar above 40 C in many regions of B.C. Parts of northern Alberta may also see temperatures near the 40 C mark by next week, including Fort McMurray, which is predicted to reach an unheard 37 C by Tuesday.

It’s a record-clobbering kind of heat wave that has surprised many, even Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips.

“This is headshaking for somebody like a climatologist, like myself. I mean I like to break a record, but this is like shattering and pulverizing them,” Phillips told by phone on Saturday.

“It’s warmer in parts of western Canada than in Dubai. I mean, it's just not something that seems Canadian,” he said.

Phillips explains that the sweltering temps are due to what climatologists call a “heat dome” – a strong ridge of high pressure that traps warm air underneath it like a dome, allowing the sun to bake the earth below, creating a heat wave that lingers for days.

To make matters worse, much of western Canada is drier than usual this season, creating a “double whammy” effect, Phillips says.

“We've had a record dry spring in the Okanagan, moisture amounts in southern Alberta are maybe half of what they were since the beginning of the year. So, there's a lot more energy of the sun going to warming the air and very little going to evaporate the moisture,” Phillips explained.

“This is sort of like a double whammy. This is why the heat is building. Nothing is going to kick this bully out of the way and it’s going to deter any weather from trying to come into it.”

In other words, it’s unlikely there is going to be any rain in the short term forecast to offer any relief.

Although ridges of high pressure often create hot spells in B.C. – usually in July and August – the kind of temperatures forecasted in Alberta this week are historic.

“The warmest [temperature] ever in Edmonton in records that go back to the 1800s is 37 degrees. So, we're forecasting a record high in Edmonton – if it gets to 37.3 C it'll be an all-time record. Never has anybody seen that,” Phillips said. He added that it’s even more remarkable that this is happening in June.

“I mean, these are temperatures that are 14 to 16 degrees warmer than they should be for this time of the year.”

In B.C., nearly the entire province is under a heat warning, save for some coastal regions like West Vancouver. However, Environment Canada is forecasting six days of 40-plus temperatures in Kamloops, which has never seen 40 C in June on record.

“Vancouver gets a day above 30 C maybe once every three or four years. We're going to see three days in a row – that’s like a 12-year supply of hot days there in Vancouver,” Phillips said.

“Yesterday is was 34 C in Victoria, which was a pretty dress rehearsal for what they’re going to see this week.”

While the heat wave is impressive from a meteorological perspective, Phillips notes that it’s duration is concerning both from a public health and an environmental standpoint.

Phillips said extreme heat can pose significant health risks, particularly for the elderly and those with underlying health issues. But even those in good health may find themselves suffering heat-related illnesses, especially after several days in a row of high temperatures.

The risk of wildfires is also a concern, Phillips says, because these kind of high pressure systems will typically end with a dry thunderstorm that spits out lightning, setting dry forests ablaze.

“Every bit of moisture in that ground is being sucked up by the by the atmosphere drying as we're talking,” Phillips said. “But it has implications for fish, too, because water levels will go down in rivers and reservoirs and that warm water will kill fish.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Pacific Northwest is also facing a historic heat through Washington and Oregon, with temperatures in many areas expected to top out up to 30 degrees above normal. The extreme heat is expected to break all-time records in cities and towns from eastern Washington state to Portland and southern Oregon as concerns mounted about wildfire risk in a region that is already experiencing a crippling and extended drought.

- With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press Top Stories

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