Heatwaves overlap as global warming makes extreme temperatures more likely

Choose a place on Earth. Chances are a climate emergency is unfolding there right now.

Parts of North America, Europe, Africa and Asia are sweltering in extreme heat, with record high temperatures baking parts of the world already battling wildfires and severe drought.

In the UK, a new provisional record of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit was seen on Tuesday, erasing the country’s previous record of 101.6 F set just three years ago. Firefighters from France, Spain, Portugal and Greece are battling wildfires ravaging a southern part of the continent.

And this month, two melting glaciers – in Italy and Kyrgyzstan – collapsed in a week, triggering snow and ice avalanches that killed at least 11 hikers in Italy’s Dolomites region.

Across the Atlantic, more than 140 million Americans are bracing for a scorching heat wave that is expected to cover much of the country, from central California to the Mississippi Valley and northeast.

Wildfires and record heat in North Africa have devastated the country’s grain harvest, and after a brief respite, parts of Asia are bracing for a return to triple-digit temperatures this week.

It’s the kind of simultaneous crises that climate experts predict will occur more frequently as the world warms. They are also another example of how climate change is already threatening the lives and livelihoods of people around the world.

“Earth is a big place, which is helpful: if there’s a drought somewhere, people elsewhere can still grow grain to feed us all,” said Bill McKibben, author and climate activist who founded the grassroots environmental group 350.org. NBC News in an email. “But when these kinds of conditions start happening simultaneously in many places, our margin drops significantly.”

Stephen Belcher, head of science and technology at the UK Met Office, said on Tuesday he did not expect Britain to exceed the 104 F temperature threshold in his career.

“To me, it’s a real reminder that the climate has changed and will continue to change,” Belcher said. said in a video posted on Twitter. “Research here at the Met Office has shown that it is virtually impossible for the UK to experience 40 degrees C [104 degrees F] in an undisturbed climate.”

Image: heat wave in Tokyo
Two women, one with a portable fan, stroll through Tokyo’s Asakusa district last month. David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images File

Although they happen simultaneously, heat episodes in the US and UK are independent, said Ben Zaitchik, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University who studies heat. extreme. But both are made more likely by climate change, which is raising temperatures around the world as humans pump up heat trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“What are the chances of two major events occurring at the same time?” Zaitchik said. “The likelihood of these compound events is increasing. … The baseline has changed.

Zaitchik added that some scientific evidence suggests that changes in the jet stream could be, in part, to blame for the intensification of heat waves in Europe.

A recent study in Nature Communications identified Europe as a heatwave hotspot and suggested that heatwaves were accelerating there three to four times faster than in other northern regions.

In recent years, the jet stream has shown a tendency to split for longer periods, trapping warm weather over western Europe and allowing it to linger there, the study said.

Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization, said on Tuesday he hoped the heat wave unfolding in Europe this week is a “wake-up call” for governments and voters to deal with the crisis climatic.

In Europe, heat-related risks have been apparent for years. As many as 70,000 more people died than expected in the 2003 heat wave that rocked the continent.

Countries with generally cooler climates, such as the UK, are often among the most at risk.

“People aren’t physically acclimated, they’re not structurally acclimatized,” Zaitchik said.

British authorities have urged people to avoid travel, stay home and avoid brutal temperatures. Some hospitals halted elective surgeries during the hottest days, expecting an influx of patients.

Image: heat wave in London
A commuter uses a fan as he travels on the London Underground in central London on July 19, 2022. Niklas Halle’n / AFP – Getty Images

“We have a pretty good heat wave plan. There are a lot of behavioral changes and messaging for people to know what to do with the heat,” said Sari Kovats, associate professor of public health, environment and society at the London School of Hygiene. & Tropical Medicine.

But plans can only go so far. Around 20% of UK homes overheat under normal summer conditions, Kovats said, adding that the country’s climate change committee “has failed to change building standards”.

This is another example that suggests humans are struggling to adapt as quickly as the climate. and its risks are moving.

“There’s only so much you can do with the behavior if the infrastructure isn’t particularly cool,” Kovats said.


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