2022 has been very hot. In North America, Europe, and Asia, extreme heat waves have occurred over the past few months. But why? Why is 2022 so hot? In this episode, I’m going to help you understand this extreme weather, while introducing you to some useful vocabulary!
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Scorching (adj/adv) – very hot
It was a scorching summer day
Unbearable (adj) – too painful or unpleasant for you to continue to experience
I was in unbearable pain after I burned all of my fingers at work
Humidity (n) – a measurement of how much water there is in the air
The temperature is 30 degrees, and the humidity is 60%
Searing (adj) – if something, such as a feeling or temperature, is described as searing, it is extreme
The marathon took place in the searing heat
Consider (v) – to believe to be; to think of as
This restaurant is considered to be the best in the world
Unprecedented (adj) – never having happened or existed in the past
40°C was an unprecedented temperature in the UK
Intense (adj) – extreme and very strong
It is difficult to work in the intense heat
To adapt (v) – to change, or to change something, to suit different conditions or uses
I had to adapt my plans to fit his schedule
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This Year Has Been Incredibly Hot
I currently live in Japan. While it has rained a lot the past few weeks, we had scorching hot temperatures in June. Japan is known for its sweltering and uncomfortable summers, but this June was the worst heatwave in the country since records began in 1875. Consecutive days of over 35°C (with some parts of the country reaching 40°) made going outside unbearable.
In Tokyo, where I live, it reached around 38° . Now that might not sound as hot as other places around the world… but Tokyo’s humidity is often around 80% in June. To give you some context, 38°C at 70% humidity feels roughly equivalent to 49°C at 30% humidity (I’ll leave a link to some data here). It was so hot that Japan nearly ran out of power, had to ask shops to turn off lights, but couldn’t ask people to turn off their air conditioning because the temperatures were too dangerous.
Earlier this year in March, India and Pakistan faced an extreme heatwave. The hot season arrived early with temperatures reaching 49° in the Pakistani city of Nawabshah, with both countries also experiencing a drought.
Right now, China is experiencing its second heatwave this month. The daily temperatures are the highest since 1961, and 70 Chinese cities have issued severe heat warnings meaning they expect temperatures to reach at least 40°. In fact, the city of Guangzhou has announced that they expect the current heatwave to last 23 days.
Europe has also faced record breaking temperatures. Temperatures above 40° were recorded in the UK for the first time ever. The heat was so bad in Britain, a country not designed to experience such extreme weather, that schools had to be closed. Airport runways melted and trains could not run as there were fears that the tracks would break.
In mainland Europe, temperatures reached even higher numbers. The heatwave was felt across Europe, from Portugal in the west, across to Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Combined with weeks of drought, the heatwave allowed massive and devastating wildfires to spread across these countries.
In the USA, 90 million people are currently under heat alerts due to dangerously high temperatures. It is one of the hottest ever summers in the country, and a number of people have already died due to the searing temperatures.
I’m sure I’ve missed some places out, but I’m sure you get my point. The world is hot. Very hot. And this heat is being felt all across the world. Millions, if not billions, of people are struggling to continue their normal lives under extreme weather conditions.
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Why are there so many heatwaves?
The simple explanation is climate change. Climate change and global warming have made heatwaves across the world more frequent and more dangerous. By burning fossil fuels, we have introduced more CO2 into our atmosphere – basically trapping in heat. The idea that the UK could reach 40° was considered impossible a few decades ago. When I was young, a really hot day was anything over 30°. However, as the world has become increasingly warm, these really hot temperatures have been occurring more frequently.
Even more concerning, the heatwaves today are reaching temperatures that were once considered impossible. The temperatures in the UK earlier this month were remarkable – the UK should not be able to get that hot. According to currentresults.com, the average high temperature in London in July is 23°. That’s considerably lower than the 39° it reached. In fact, scientists at the UK Met Office (the UK’s weather research department) believe that human influence has made the chances of the UK reaching 40° 10 times higher!
Last year the Pacific Northwest (parts of the USA and Canada) experienced a similarly extreme heatwave. The temperatures were completely unprecedented – one town called Lytton usually averages just 16°C in June but last year hit a terrifying 47.9°… the hottest ever temperature recorded in Canada. Research carried out by the World Weather Attribution group demonstrated that without climate change this heatwave would have been “virtually impossible.”
According to Mariam Zacariah, an Imperial College London climate scientist, there are two main ways climate change can lead to heatwaves. First, as I mentioned before, climate change traps heat that would usually escape from the global system. With more heat in the world, the atmosphere gets warmer in general, and this means there will be more frequent and intense days of extreme heat.
Second, there is a “dynamic” impact of climate change. Burning fossil fuels, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, and warming the planet has changed our weather patterns. Historic patterns of heat and cold, rainy and dry seasons are changing. Places across the world are experiencing certain types of weather at unusual times. Changing weather patterns was a major cause of this year’s European heatwaves – scorching North African air was unexpectedly brought up to Europe.
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Why are the heatwaves happening at the same time?
Something else that becomes obvious when considering global temperatures is that heatwaves are happening at the same time in different parts of the world. Japan, China, all of Europe, North America – they all experienced extreme heat together.
This is something that scientists have noticed and has caused concern. A study conducted by Australian and American researchers discovered that between 1979 and 2019, the average number of days in the northern hemisphere with simultaneous heatwaves increased from around 20 to 143. To put it simply, there are now 7 times more simultaneous heatwaves across the northern hemisphere. These heatwaves are also more intense and more extreme. Why is this happening?
The first reason for more simultaneous heatwaves is simple statistics. Due to global warming the chances of a heatwave occurring anywhere in the world is more likely. This also means that the chances of two heatwaves occurring at the same time is also more likely.
However, data suggests that concurrent heatwaves in Asia, Europe, and North America are happening too often – even when considering global warming. Instead, some studies suggest that climate change is having other effects that contribute to heatwaves. For example, some scientists believe that climate change has layered the jet streams – air currents that move weather from the west to the east. These changes mean it is more likely that hot weather can hit multiple places.
Does it Matter?
Does it really matter if we have more frequent and more intense heatwaves? Surely it might be nice to have warmer temperatures in summer, right? While I don’t believe this… it was actually something conservative newspapers and TV channels were saying while the UK was experiencing 40°C weather.
Well, the consequences of heatwaves are often disastrous. Thousands of people can die. Millions more can experience ill health. Businesses and industries struggle as both workers and customers can’t deal with warmer temperatures.
Heatwaves can cause crops to fail – harming food production. This is especially true if hot weather occurs at the wrong time of the year, such as in India earlier this year. Heatwaves also are associated with droughts and lack of rain. If heatwaves were to hit important food production areas at the same time there could be regional or worldwide shortages.
As we saw in the UK, transport was severely affected by the heatwave. The runways at airports melted causing delays. Trains were cancelled, or were forced to reduce their speeds, as the tracks were too hot. This year the Rhine river in Europe, a vital trade route, has become so shallow that some boats are struggling to pass through it.
Heatwaves also test energy grids. As I mentioned right at the beginning, last month Japan advised residents to save energy by turning off lights. An earthquake earlier in the year damaged a few power plants, and Japan has now been left struggling to meet the demand for electricity when everyone is using air conditioning. Last week in China factories were forced to use less power to make sure residents had enough power for air conditioning.
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What should we do?
The world today is on average 1.1-1.3°C hotter than before industrialisation. By 2100, the world will likely be at least 1.5°C warmer (but probably warmer). Even if governments reduce their emissions, extreme heatwaves will continue to happen more often. In reality, it is unlikely government’s will actually cut their CO2 emissions.
So, just hoping that we stop polluting the atmosphere is not enough. We need to adapt our societies to climate change – we need to accept our world is becoming more unpredictable and dangerous and make changes.
Some of the changes need to be short term – to deal with the immediate dangers of heatwaves. For example, some European countries made places with air conditioning free to enter – like museums, concert halls, and exhibitions. This is especially important in places like the UK, as it is quite rare for houses to have air conditioning installed. Other ideas include: giving out free water (or installing more water fountains) in busy cities, checking the condition of vulnerable people, and making sure homeless people are healthy.
We also need to make long term changes. Planting more trees in cities, designing new homes so that they resist heat better, improving weather forecasts, and making improvements to existing buildings and transport are all important steps. We also need to consider how best to work, study, and live in a warmer world.
After listening to this episode, hopefully you will understand why heatwaves are happening more often. Across the planet, temperatures are soaring and the consequences can be serious. Climate change has increased the frequency of heatwaves, the intensity of heatwaves, and made it more likely for heatwaves to happen in multiple places at the same time.
What can we do? Even if country’s cut their emissions, heatwaves will continue to get worse over the next 100 years. In this situation, our only choice is to adapt. Our world needs to get better at dealing with hot weather – we need to design houses that stay cool in summer, heat resistant transport, and planting trees in cities.
Has your country faced a heatwave this year? What temperature did your country get to? How do you think we should deal with heatwaves in the future?
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