Record-high heat scorches parts of Canada, strains power grids

08:24, July 22, 2011      

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by Mark Bourrie

A heat dome that has been hovering over parts of Canada several days are setting record highs across Eastern and Central Canada on Thursday, which could be the hottest day of the year.

Environment Canada, the federal government agency that monitors weather, released a special weather statement for the region, warning residents that a "sultry tropical air mass" will make its way across all of southern Ontario by the afternoon.

The statement says that the mercury is likely to hit 32 Celsius in Fredericton, 33 in Montreal, 34 in Ottawa and 37 in Toronto, and Windsor, Ontario residents should expect it to be a blistering 39.

The rising temperatures are due to what's being called a heat dome -- a hot, unmoving high-pressure area hovering over central Canada. The dome is pushing the jet stream well to the north and keeping cooler or wetter weather out.

Environment Canada senior climatologist Dave Phillips said that it's like a heat pump and it just sluggishly sits there.

The dome is currently sitting over much of the United States. It spread up to Western Canada over the weekend, covering large swaths of the country and pushing the temperatures to scorching highs in the Prairies.

On Tuesday, Winnipeg was baking under a high of 34.4 C and Regina under 31.9 C.

Looking ahead, the 10-day forecast predicts above-normal temperatures from eastern Alberta through to Prince Edward Island.

Eight years after the electrical system in the U.S. northeast and southern Canada left millions without electricity during a three-day heat wave, authorities are claiming that record heat in the same parts of North America will cause a similar collapse of the distribution system.

People are conserving energy more often and the recession has shuttered some industries that used large amounts of electricity, a spokesman for Ontario Hydro, the largest power utility In Canada, said Thursday.

Still, thousands of extra air conditioners have been turned on across southern Canada as people try to escape heat that, for this part of the world, is fairly rare.

Downtown Toronto was the hottest city in Canada by 1 p.m. local time Thursday, hitting a high of 36.4 C. For the first time, the retractable roof of the city's domed stadium was closed to protect spectators at a major league baseball game from the heat.

Commuter trains in the Toronto area are running more slowly than normal because the heat softens steel rails and can cause the tracks to buckle.

The extreme high humidity made it feel like 49 C, the federal agency Environment Canada said.

Medical authorities warned people with chronic breathing difficulties, diabetes, and those taking certain medications to stay indoors if they have air conditioning.

Dr. Isra Levy, Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health, suggested publicly that people who don't have air conditioning should spend the day in shopping malls, city swimming pools and other public places that have air conditioning.

Some smaller communities have set up public "cooling centers" where people can go to escape the heat.

The Independent Electrical Systems Operator, which operates Ontario's power grid said the lines and transformers can handle about 28,000 megawatts on their own. They can also draw on another 4,000 or 5,000 megawatts from Quebec, New York and Michigan.

Spokeswoman Alexandra Campbell said the problems that cause the 2003 collapse, which left 50 million Canadians and Americans without power for three days or more, have been fixed.

Still, Toronto Hydro, which operates the grid in Canada's largest city, asked people to conserve electricity, warning that transformers and power lines will not be able to cool down overnight.

Toronto Hydro said in a news release that energy consumption in Canada's largest city may break last year's peak of 4,786 megawatts Wednesday, if not the record of 5,018 set in July 2006.

Meteorologists say the heat wave is caused by a "dome" of high pressure lying south of the jet stream. The hot weather is making its way slowly across North America.

It is being blamed for forest fires that have forced more than 3,500 people to leave isolated Indian reserves in northern Ontario as more than 300 major fires burn out of control in the region's pine forests.

Water bombers are operating out of Thunder Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior in central Canada. A convection thunderstorm destroyed part of the roof of the airport that serves the city of 120,000 people.

As well, many parts of the eastern part of Canada have not had significant rainfall in several weeks, causing farmers to worry about corn and soya bean crops in eastern Canada.

The country's grain harvest is already expected to be cut drastically because of abnormal spring floods in the grain-growing western plains.

The higher-than-normal temperatures are expected to last another two weeks in much of eastern Canada, according to Environment Canada.

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