Natural Disasters

Heatwaves across continents drive home global warming reality

Most nations are facing record high temperatures

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Wednesday 03 July 2019
A sweltering world
A sweltering heat wave killed 1,032 people in Japan last July, when temperatures rose to 41.10C, the highest recorded in the country A sweltering heat wave killed 1,032 people in Japan last July, when temperatures rose to 41.10C, the highest recorded in the country

On June 17, 2019, the Canadian Parliament declared a national climate emergency. Taking note of the unprecedented warming, Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the country was warming three times as fast as the rest of the world, and by the middle of this century most marine regions in the Canadian north will be ice-free. Canadians will end up with 10 times as many deadly heatwaves as the country is facing today, she added.

Heat waves are occurring across the world. United Kingdom's Met Office has predicted that 2019 will be even warmer than 2018, which was the fourth hottest year ever recorded. The United Nation’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has said many nations near the equator will see 24 monthly heat records surpassed every decade, which in other words means that roughly two months of every year will be hotter than in any year before it.

The United States, which has walked out of the Paris Climate Agreement, is literally facing the heat. Many US states, including Oregon, Arizona, Las Vegas and San Francisco, recorded their highest-ever temperatures in a century. Shelters and temporary cooling stations have been opened even as residents experienced tens of thousands of power outages. The country’s National Weather Service issued a heat advisory.

In the UK, hundreds of large wildfires are contributing to the heat wave. In fact, 2019 is already the worst in Britain’s history — 96 major wildfires till June this year, eclipsing the previous high of 79 across the whole of 2018.

“These wildfires are spiking pollution levels,” says Thomas Smith of the London School of Economics in the UK. Moreover, wildfires have a huge financial cost — in California, USA, insurance companies are bracing for payouts exceeding last year’s record of $11.8 billion payments to fire victims.

Europe has been under severe heat stress since the past week, which has ignited wild fires in many regions and impacted people’s health and work efficiencies. In Germany, the Rhine River is drying up. Mike Rantanen, a meteorologist at the University of Helsinki, says there “are no known cases in Finland’s climate history when it has been hotter than now so early in the summer”.

Accuweather has forecast high temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius in many countries in Europe due to high-pressure systems. In particular, Portugal and Spain could see multi-day heat waves with temperatures above 43°C. 

France is facing the worst of the phenomenon as the country recorded its highest-ever temperature at 45.9°C in Gallargue-le-Montueux on June 28. Two other weather stations also recorded a temperature of more than 45°C.

This is the first time this number has been breached in the country, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The previous highest was 44.1°C during the intense heat wave of 2003 that had killed 15,000 people.

James Screen of Exeter University says rising temperatures allow a high pressure system to drift over Europe and form “blocking ridges” to more normal weather patterns. This year, the ridge brought warm dry air from Africa and prevented rain-bearing Atlantic fronts from reaching land.

Moreover, temperatures soared early this year. Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Czech Republic also set new monthly records for high temperatures. For instance, Germany recorded its highest-ever June temperature of 39.6°C on June 30, 2019. This broke June temperature records across the 243 observing stations in the country.

“It is premature to attribute the heatwave to climate change, but this is consistent with climate scenarios which predict more frequent, drawn out and intense heat events as greenhouse gas concentrations lead to a rise in global temperatures,” said the WMO on July 1.

According to Accuweather, the heat wave began to build up in northern Africa from the coastline of Libya and northern Egypt, including Cairo in the last week of May. This heat wave hit Turkey and Syria too. The Turkish Meteorological Organization said temperatures reached extremely high levels ever recorded in the month of May.

Japan is fearing the worst. Last July, a sweltering heat wave killed 1,032 people, when temperatures rose to 41.1°C, the highest temperature ever recorded in the country. On May 26 this year, temperatures hit 39.5°C on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, according to the Meteorological Society of Japan. This was the first time that the temperature shot past 38°C in Hokkaido during any month of the year.

A study by the Meteorological Society of Japan published this year says that the 2018 heat wave could not have occurred “in the absence of global warming”. Scientists reached this conclusion by employing a technique known as event attribution.

In Australia, fish are dying, bats are falling dead from trees and people are complaining of illnesses. On 17 January, Noona in New South Wales recorded Australia’s warmest ever night with temperatures remaining above 35.9°C. Canberra has also had four consecutive days of temperatures above 40°C for the first time. On January 24, Adelaide hit 46.6°C, the hottest temperature recording in any Australian state capital city since record-keeping began 80 years ago.

A pub in the city’s Elizabeth north sub-urb, The Red Lion, promised free beers if the mercury rose above 45°C. By 1 pm, there was a long line outside the door and round the block. In central and western Australia, local authorities have been forced to carry out an emergency animal cull, shooting 2,500 camels — and potentially a further hundred feral horses — dying of thirst.

A team of Australian meteorologists analysed the predictions of 22 separate climate reports in June 2018 and found that under current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, high monthly temperature records will be set in approximately 58 per cent of the world every single year — including 67 per cent of the poorest nations and 68 per cent of small island developing states — until 2100.

Nearly 10 per cent of the world will also have at least one monthly temperature record “smashed” by more than 1°C every year. In fact, Kuwait is already claiming a new record — on June 8, it said the temperature was 63°C (this has to be verified by the WMO). The existing record is held by California — in July 1913, the temperature rose to 57.7°C.

According to a new study, published on June 17 in Nature Climate Change, this scorching trend will continue for most of the globe every single year as long as no action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles, says: “Our recent research suggests we have reached the point where a majority (perhaps even a vast majority) of unprecedented extreme heat events globally have a detectable human fingerprint.”

The researchers concluded that the only explanation of why heat affected so many areas across the globe over several months is anthropogenic climate change.

(This article was originally published in Down To Earth's print edition dated July 1-15, 2019)

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