I took some time this summer to travel to southern cities and towns in Ontario. Unfortunately for me, I timed my visits during some of the hottest days of the year. I also drove an older vehicle that did not have air conditioning. I was miserable most of the time as I slowly crawled along in the bumper-to-bumper, Southern Ontario traffic under blisteringly hot conditions.
We Cree are not accustomed to hot tropical weather. In the Far North we experience a few hot summer days. We more or less enjoy those precious hot days and nights because we know they won’t last long and that there won’t be many of them.
The heat in the north is nothing compared to the blast furnace of sitting on a freeway under the midday sun in places like Toronto, London or Hamilton. During my recent tour, I was in a never-ending quest to find the next location with air conditioning. I didn’t have relief in my car so I sought out the air-conditioned convenience stores, malls and hotels. When I was out in the open air, I struggled just to get around and I was sweating so much that I had to make sure to have a bottle of water with me at all times.
The concrete and asphalt was so hot I think I could have fried up some goose on it. If you think about it you quickly realize why the cities to the south are so hot. Native communities like my home in Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast are surrounded by an endless number of trees, lakes, rivers and all set in wet muskeg. The natural environment does an amazingly efficient job of capturing heat and energy from the sun. It takes several hot days before we feel any oppressive and muggy temperatures on the land.
Take a look at a detailed satellite image of any medium or large-sized city. About a third of the land area is paved with black asphalt on highways, suburban streets and parking lots. Most streets are lined with concrete sidewalks and many commercial and residential buildings are covered over in black asphalt roofing. When you think about it, half the land area is layered over in black asphalt or concrete in one form or another. Road asphalt is well known for absorbing heat and even re-emitting the sun’s energy after sundown, which maintains those hot muggy temperatures for a longer period of time.
During my most recent trip south, I realized the effect a modern city landscape has on local weather. As I sat in my car in afternoon traffic, the temperature hovered around 34 degrees Celsius with humidity that made it feel like 40 C. Sitting with my window open in my car with no air conditioning, I could literally feel the heat rising up from the road surface. I felt like a live lobster in a pot of boiling water.
Cities actually generate a phenomenon known as heat islands in the summer. These are areas of the city that have a high concentration of asphalt, concrete and other heat-absorbing materials that generate hot spots that stretch for several blocks and hover in the same location for long periods of time. In contrast, the parts of the city that are the coolest are park areas that have lots of trees and vegetation. Trees don’t just block the sunlight; they also generate moisture that cools the surrounding air in a process called evapotranspiration.
There are many benefits to living in a large city. There are more opportunities for all sorts of things because of the number of people, businesses and services that are available. The fact is that I find it very difficult to deal with big cities in a heat wave. I feel as though I am in the middle of firebrick that is well designed for reflecting and maintaining hot temperatures.
As ingenious and inventive as we have become, however, nothing can compare to what Mother Nature has accomplished over millions of years to provide in many parts of the world a balanced temperate climate. Annually, an acre of young trees generates enough oxygen to keep 18 people alive while also absorbing about 12 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As the world becomes hotter with global warming we should be thinking of preserving more of our green spaces or at some point it might be impossible to inhabit cities during the heat of summer. Give me the muskeg, lakes, rivers, black flies and mosquitoes any time.