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The Reality Of Europe's Heat Wave Is Far More Terrifying Than You Think
We are going to have to live with this.
This week, Europe experienced one of the most intense heatwaves in its extensive history. An anticyclone, an area of high pressure named Cerberus, after the three-headed hound of Hades, hung over the continent, driving temperatures to record highs. Italy experienced temperatures as high as 40C (104F), France reached 39C (102F), and according to satellite data, parts of Spain reached an astonishing 60C (140F). At face value, this might seem like a one-off extreme weather event, but this is set to become the new normal thanks to climate change. In fact, it looks like European summers will soon butt up against the limits of human habitability. Let me explain.
To understand all of this, we have to start at the beginning, with global warming. You see, it wasn’t just Cerberus driving this heatwave, as the entire planet is currently experiencing unprecedented heat thanks to human-driven climate change.
The annual average global temperature for 2022 was 14.75C (58.55F), which is 1.06C (1.90F) warmer than pre-industrial times. While this might not sound like a lot, remember that it is an annualised average, so in the summer, we feel more than a 1.06C increase in temperatures. This is one of the many reasons why the first week of July 2023 was possibly one of the warmest weeks ever recorded for the planet. The global average temperature was 17.24C on the 7th of July! That is nearly 2 degrees warmer than the 20th-century average for July.
Sadly, Europe is unlucky enough to have a high-temperature system hovering over it (Cerberus) during this record heat, sending its temperatures even higher!
So, that’s the cause behind the current extreme heat gripping Europe. But, as I am about to show you, it is but a taste of what is to come.
We have known for a while that global warming affects different parts of the globe in different ways, with some areas experiencing dramatic temperature increases and others less so. This is why Europe is currently the fastest-warming continent on the planet, warming twice as fast as the global average for the last four decades, and according to recent reports, that trend is set to continue for decades more.
So, how much global warming are we predicted to reach? Well, as I covered in a previous article, at our current rate, we are predicted to reach 3C of global warming! This means that Europe’s summer temperatures will be significantly higher than they currently are, potentially up to 6C hotter.
So, the question has to be asked, how deadly will this be? Well, to understand that, we need to understand wet bulb temperatures.
The temperatures used in weather forecasting and reporting are typically dry bulb temperatures. You can think of this as the bulb at the end of an old-fashioned thermometer being dry when the measurement is taken. A wet bulb temperature is when the bulb is wet and open to the ambient air. This allows the water to evaporatively cool the thermometer, leading to lower temperature readings. If the ambient air has low humidity, it drives faster evaporation rates, making wet bulb temperatures much lower than dry bulb ones. But if the air is humid, the wet bulb temperatures measure much closer to dry bulb temperatures, as evaporative cooling rates are hampered.
So, why am I talking about wet bulb temperatures? Well, humans, along with almost every mammal, use evaporative cooling to ensure our core temperatures don’t go too high when it’s hot outside. This is why we can survive 60C heat if the air is dry, as our sweat can cool us down dramatically. But 35C heat in 100% humidity can be deadly, as evaporative cooling stops working entirely. So, to understand the direct heat stress caused by the weather, we need to look at wet bulb temperatures, not dry bulb as we have been.
Researchers have estimated that wet bulb temperatures above 35C for over 6 hours are enough to kill even fit and healthy humans. That temperature is equivalent to 45C at 50% humidity. But more recent research suggests that deadly wet bulb temperatures for fit and healthy individuals actually start as low as 31.5C!
The wet bulb temperatures around the globe are already far higher than was predicted just a few years ago. This is likely caused by higher levels of global warming than predicted, which not only drive up ambient temperatures but also speed up the water cycle, causing higher-than-normal humidities in specific locations.
So, the next question is, what wet bulb temperatures has Europe just hit? Well, last week, Italy hit a wet bulb temperature for several hours of 30C, with much of the continent not far behind. What’s more, these temperatures could be reached again this week. This puts Europe’s current heatwave staggeringly close to being inhospitable to humans.
So, what about the future?
Well, recent research and reports indicate that heat waves like this one are set to become the norm in Europe, as the weather systems that used to stabilise its weather are weakening. What’s more, for each degree of global warming that happens, research has found that wet bulb temperatures in the tropics will also increase by a degree. Subtropical and temperate locations like Europe, Asia, Australia and North America are likely to experience a higher increase in wet bulb temperatures per degree of heating, as their climates run more humid than the tropics.
This means that in the near future, Europe will likely see regular heat waves that exceed what the human body can handle, meaning hundreds of thousands could die each year of heat stress.
But this terrible fate isn’t only for Europe. All in all, about 40% of the global population currently live in locations that will soon experience deadly wet bulb temperatures. While this includes many developing countries, it will also dramatically affect developed countries, like the US and Europe.
In a way, Cerberus is just a taste of what’s to come, not only for Europe but for the rest of the world. A climate disaster hors d’oeuvre, if you will. But we are lucky. We have just enough time to get ahead of climate change and stop it. Phasing out coal over the next decade, cutting annual fossil fuel investment and increasing annual renewables investment can all help us to limit climate change to just 1.5C and save millions of lives. But only if we start acting now. We can stop this horrific future; the question is, will we?
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