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How to think about the Kootenay heatwave

Two local scientists discuss the weather and the climate
Mel Reasoner (left) and Greg Utzig. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

During the week of June 28 the days were hot but so were the nights. Those hot nights were something new in the Kootenays.

“It’s a different feeling,” said Nelson scientist Greg Utzig in an interview on June 30. “I’ve spent time in the tropics. I grew up in the prairies where humidity made this kind of heat even worse. But there’s something, almost a menacing feeling, about the heat that we’ve had the last few days.”

Utzig specializes in conservation ecology and terrain science and he is no stranger to thinking about heat and climate. For the past two decades he’s been studying, writing on, and speaking about the effects of climate change, present and future, on ecosystems in the Kootenays.

He regularly observes world climate data and says the temperatures seen in B.C. in the week of June 28 are unprecedented and reflect unusual behaviour by the jet stream, a band of strong winds that generally travels west to east in the atmosphere and affects temperature and precipitation.

Local scientist Mel Reasoner says the problem with hot nights is that you can’t escape. “When it cools off at night you get a bit of a reprieve.”

Reasoner has a PhD in earth and atmospheric sciences. His company, Climatic Resources Consulting, provides climate change information to the Columbia Basin Trust, the City of Edmonton, and communities in Nova Scotia, among others.

He says climate scientists have long been predicting warmer nights.

“And it’s happening,” he said. “Temperatures are going up, and that includes the nighttime temperatures, daytime highs, mean temperatures, all heading in the same direction.”

The mean summer temperature for the Nelson area, according to scientific predictions published on the Columbia Basin Climate Source website, to which Reasoner is a main contributor, are expected to increase by 4.1 degrees above the 1960s by the 2050s under business-as-usual carbon emissions.

The mean annual temperature would increase by 3.2 degrees.

These may sound like small increases but the results could be catastrophic.

If there are significant worldwide emissions reductions, the summer mean temperature increase would be 3.4 degrees and the mean annual temperature increase would be 2.8 degrees.

Forests and water

Utzig’s garden is doing really well this summer.

“It’s growing like stink. But on the other hand, if I didn’t have water, it wouldn’t be growing at all.”

He expects many trees in the Kootenays will die of drought this year, unless we get lots of rain in July.

“June is typically a fairly wet month,” he said, “and this one has been particularly dry. We’ve had a generally dry spring. And now we combine that with this amount of heat, which creates incredible evaporative demand on on trees. I mean, I just need to look at my garden and how much water it needs.”

The average spring precipitation for 1991-2020 (March to May) was 171 millimetres, according to Climate BC. Precipitation in spring 2021 was 95 mm, about 55 per cent of normal, according to Environment Canada.

The average June precipitation from 1991 to 2020 was 73 mm. Precipitation in June 2021 was 43 mm, less than 60 per cent of normal.

Utzig says the closest automated snow monitoring site is at Redfish Creek on the North Shore, where virtually all the snow had melted at the site by June 26, about three weeks earlier than the 30-year average. It is one of the earliest years on record at the site.

“There could be serious issues for people that depend on small streams and surface-fed springs for water,” Utzig said. “Those people exist all over the West Kootenay. I mean, even in Nelson, our water supply is three small streams.”

Is it too late?

No matter what actions governments and industry take to reduce emissions, we are in for a rough ride in the short term, Reasoner said.

He said climate is variable, there are warm and cold years, but it is the averages that count. And those averages keep going up.

Utzig said things will get worse over the next 30 or 40 years no matter what we do.

“Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a few decades. What we put in today will affect the climate in the coming decades. And what we put in the past is what’s getting us today.”

But can we turn it around?

Utzig said he doesn’t believe it’s too late, adding that how to reduce emissions is no mystery.

“We’re still not doing it, though, because some people are making a lot of money not doing it. That’s really the basic problem.”


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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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