Global warming is making dangerously hot weather more common and more extreme on every continent. a New study By researchers in Britain who take a unique approach to identify the places most at risk.
When the mercury rises, communities can suffer for many reasons: because no one checks on elderly people who live alone, because the poor have no air conditioning, because workers have little choice but to toil outdoors. The new study focuses on one simple reason communities are particularly vulnerable to an extreme heat wave: because they’ve never experienced one before.
Whether due to heat, floods, or epidemics of disease, societies in general are equipped to deal only with the most serious disaster they have experienced in recent memory. Immediately after a disaster strikes, people and policymakers become very knowledgeable about the risks and how to respond, said Dan Mitchell, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol in England and an author of the study. “And then, as the years go by, you kind of forget and don’t get too annoyed,” he said.
Dr. Mitchell and his colleagues studied daily extreme temperatures around the world between 1959 and 2021. They found that regions covering 31 percent of the Earth’s surface experienced such extraordinary heat that, statistically, they shouldn’t have happened. The study argues that these places are now more or less prepared for future extreme heat spells.
But there are still many regions that, simply by chance, have not yet experienced such intense heat. So they may not be ready.
According to the study, these include economically developed places like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as the region of China around Beijing. But it also includes developing countries like Afghanistan, Guatemala, Honduras and Papua New Guinea, which likely lack the resources to keep people safe.
Other areas particularly at risk include far eastern Russia, northwestern Argentina and part of northeastern Australia.
the study Published Tuesday in Nature Communications.
Why is this important
In 2021, a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest broke local records by staggering margins. Hundreds of people may have died in Washington and Oregon from the heat. Crops withered. A wildfire devastated the village of Lytton, British Columbia.
The new study shows that hot spells outside the range of statistical plausibility have occurred around the world over the past few decades. This suggests it could happen again, anywhere, though it won’t be all off the charts like the recent Pacific Northwest.
Human-caused climate change is not helping. As the planet warms, the range of potential temperatures that many places could experience is trending upwards. Scorching heat that was once considered extraordinary is becoming more likely.
But the weather has always varied greatly, and the most extraordinary events are those which, by definition, are not often witnessed by people. Societies must remain “modest” about all extreme weather events that could arise, said Karen McKinnon, assistant professor of statistics and environment at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Often we are not prepared for this basic level of variance,” said Dr. McKinnon, who was not involved in the new study.
Understand the bigger picture
The study only looks at temperature extremes, which aren’t the only factor that can make heat waves devastating. Humidity is also important, as are the sweltering temperatures during the night, which eliminate chances for people to cool off from the harsh conditions of the day.
In general, heat relief—in the form of, say, green or air-conditioned spaces—is less accessible to the poor than to the rich.
Even in places that have already seen record-breaking heat waves, many residents may still fail to prepare for future extremes because average conditions remain largely mild. in Research published last yearDr. McKinnon showed that in the Pacific Northwest, very high summer temperatures occurred more often than one would expect given the region’s generally temperate climate.
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