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Climate Change

Heatwaves Are Altering Our Everyday Lives

A May, 2022 report asks us to stop looking backward to see if pre-industrial eras had heatwaves. Instead, we need to look at adaptation decision-making in the face of unprecedented future heat.

Chicago set a new record for warmest temperatures ever recorded on May 11, when O’Hare International Airport hit 90° F. Utah expects temps in the high 80s or low 90s this weekend. It’s been nearly as warm this week in New England as in southeastern Florida. Heatwaves have caused crisis conditions over the last two months in India and Pakistan, where birds have fallen from the skies, wheat crops are in jeopardy, and power plants can’t keep up with energy demands. That extreme heat is impacting hundreds of millions of people in one of the most densely populated parts of the world, threatening to damage whole ecosystems.

Many countries are now experiencing record-smashing heatwaves that have been intensified due to anthropogenic climate change. Experts say we will see more severe heatwaves in the next few decades unless rigorous steps are taken to stop climate change globally.

A May, 2022 report challenges us to transcend our curiosity about whether today’s most impactful heatwaves could have occurred in a pre-industrial climate. That question is fast becoming obsolete, according to the researchers from New Zealand, the UK, and the US. Instead, their analysis indicates that the current climate has changed so significantly that the pre-industrial world becomes a poor basis of comparison.

The next frontier is to inform adaptation decision-making in the face of unprecedented future heat, and new tools are needed to assess the effectiveness of adaptation to changes in extreme weather as well as to quantify future changes in heat exposure.

Heatwaves & New Methods to Connect the Climate Change Dots

In the late 20th century, the general public really didn’t understand the importance of rising greenhouse gas emissions and their consequence of a warming planet. The evidence was disparate and often based on projections that made it difficult to ground runaway emissions growth in local contexts, which came to be known as NIMBY (not in my backyard). An extreme flood or heatwave made news headlines as an aberrant weather event rather than a warning call about anthropogenic warming.

Then, in the early 2000s, science began to make overt connections between extreme heatwaves that contribute to significant death tolls and climate change. That is, by contextualizing a changing climate as affecting extreme weather events and the impacts that people were suffering, a new area of climate science that was grounded in events, called event attribution, emerged.

Event attribution focuses on the frequency and magnitude of meteorological variables in climates with higher and lower levels of anthropogenic forcing. These researchers also analyze when no climate change signal exists, which helps decision makers to determine which events are not harbingers of an even worse future. That kind of data can help to simplify and strengthen wider efforts to reduce exposure and vulnerability to subsequent events.

The result? The scientific community found a method to communicate to the wider public that anthropogenic climate change is a real, dangerous, and contemporary phenomenon. It’s much more clear to the general public now that all heatwaves today bear the unmistakable and measurable fingerprint of global warming.

Communities do not adapt relative to a fixed pre-industrial baseline, but, rather, to the climate as it changes. It’s necessary to continually integrate new sources of knowledge and evaluate the efficacy of past efforts to enhance resilience. Valuable new information streams are being generated to quantify the rate of change at which extreme events are happening.

In that way, planners can consider not only the distance from an unfamiliar pre-industrial climate but also the velocity of change and whether current adaptation measures would likely be robust.

Heatwaves in a Contemporary Context

The numbers of recent heat-related damages, injuries, and deaths are high.

  • More than 2500 people died in the UK due to extreme heat in 2020. Those numbers were comparable to the 2,234 excess deaths seen during the 2003 Europe-wide heatwave and the 2,323 who died in the heatwave in 2006.
  • Over 500 excess deaths were recorded in British Columbia in the days following a severe heatwave in June, 2021. World Weather Attribution (WWA) consortium, for example, concluded that the heatwave that gripped western North America and sent temperatures in Canada to a record 49.6 C (121 F) would have been “virtually impossible” without human-induced climate change.
  • In 2021, there were 20 weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each to affect the US. These events included 1 drought event, 2 flooding events, 11 severe storm events, 4 tropical cyclone events, 1 wildfire event, and 1 winter storm event. Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 724 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted.
  • The numbers of heat-related deaths are poorly estimated in low- and middle-income countries but are likely to be significant.

Few communities worldwide are optimally adapted to the present-day climate, further validating concerns over the impacts expected with another half-degree of warming and beyond. Ramping up monitoring of progress in heat-related adaptation is thus urgently needed to ensure that policies and measures are commensurate with the risks.

Heatwaves can place electricity networks under immense strain, with blackout risks particularly high in countries where energy demand for cooling can overwhelm less reliable infrastructure networks. As example, the demand for electricity in India has soared due to the ongoing heatwave. The strides the country claims toward clean energy are ironic, considering that nearly 75% of India’s electricity comes from coal-fired thermal power plants. India has ordered hundreds of additional cargo trains to transport coal to coal-fired thermal power plants.

It is increasingly important to identify the severity of extreme heat required for power failures to take place in different cities of the world. Data can help to quantify how the probability of exceeding this threshold will change under future warming scenarios. This would help to resolve the likelihood of adaptation mechanisms failing in future and what further interventions might be needed by decision makers in response.

Final Thoughts

Of great urgency is to determine the rates of worsening heatwave severity, if they can be met by equal rates of adaptation, and what upper limits — physiological, societal, or otherwise — might inhibit the ability of communities to prepare for the unknown climates of the future. The tools that demonstrate how climate change can affect extreme weather need expanding to answer the questions of tomorrow.

Cleantech companies are emerging that forecast damaging climate-related events. For example, AiDash, a provider of satellite- and AI-powered operations, maintenance, and sustainability platforms, is ready to announce a new product that focuses on helping utility and energy companies as well as governments and cities, manage the impact of natural disasters, including storms and wildfires.

Other cleantech companies are ready to jump in — but are communities ready to accept the inevitability of heatwave adaptation?

Note: In a light-headed way that’s not meant to disrespect those who have suffered due to climate-related heatwaves, let’s listen to a 1970s silly little ditty that uses the metaphor of heatwaves to describe young love. Ah, if it were only that simple.

 

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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