Record-breaking Heatwaves Likely To Cause Most Harm In Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Central America

Heat Wave
A severe heatwave in France on 18 June 2022, Adrien Fillon/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

A new study has highlighted under-prepared regions across the world most at risk of the devastating effects of scorching temperatures.

The University of Bristol-led research report (Thompson, V., Mitchell, D., Hegerl, G.C. et al. The most at-risk regions in the world for high-impact heatwaves. Nat Commun 14, 2152 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-37554-1), published today in Nature Communications, shows that unprecedented heat extremes combined with socioeconomic vulnerability puts certain regions, such as Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Central America, most in peril.

Other scientists conducting the research are Matthew Collins, Nicholas J. Leach & Julia M. Slingo.

The research report said:

“Record-breaking temperature extremes can cause severe impacts on society and the environment, as was seen in western North America in June 2021. Identifying which regions globally have perhaps been lucky not to have experienced higher temperature extremes so far is important and is the focus of this study. Often, regions are only prepared for events as extreme as they have already experienced, with planning initiated by past disasters. Policymakers and governments need to prepare for events beyond current records – particularly with trends caused by anthropogenic climate change enhancing the probability of extremes.”

It said:

“Heatwaves are deadly—but better preparation can save lives. Planning ahead can reduce mortality from climatic extremes. For example, city heat plans that include actions such as establishing cooling centers or reducing hours of work for outdoor workers can reduce heat impacts. Policy changes following the 2003 European heatwave led to fewer deaths after the similar magnitude 2006 event, and humanitarian response plans in Bangladesh reduced mortality from Cyclone Amphan in 2020.”

The scientists listed the regions which are statistically most at risk of a record heatwave. Afghanistan is the region of most concern as it is one of the least developed countries globally, with the historical record showing a low return period of ~80 years and steep projected population growth. The countries of the Central American Integration System region: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, are all developing countries. This region is vulnerable as, although the population is not expected to increase as much as elsewhere, the current record is further below the statistical maximum — suggesting the region could experience a large jump in the record. This is also the case for far eastern Russia (Khabarovsk region).

Heat Map
Map showing where record breaking heatwaves are most likely.

Countries yet to experience the most intense heatwaves are often especially susceptible, as adaptation measures are often only introduced after the event. A high chance of record-breaking temperatures, growing populations, and limited healthcare and energy provision, increase the risks.

Beijing, Central Europe

Beijing and Central Europe are also on the list of hotspots, as if record-breaking heatwaves occurred in these densely populated regions millions of people would be adversely affected.

Beijing, Hebei, and Tianjin provinces of China and Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium are vulnerable in terms of population number but, as developed countries, are more likely to have heat plans to mitigate potential impacts.

In light of the findings, the researchers are calling for policy makers in hotspot regions to consider relevant action plans to reduce the risk of deaths and associated harms from climate extremes.

Lead author, climate scientist Dr Vikki Thompson at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “As heatwaves are occurring more often we need to be better prepared. We identify regions that may have been lucky so far — some of these regions have rapidly growing populations, some are developing nations, some are already very hot. We need to ask if the heat action plans for these areas are sufficient.”

The researchers used extreme value statistics — a method to estimate the return periods of rare events — and large datasets from climate models and observations to pinpoint regions globally where temperature records are most likely to be broken soonest and the communities consequently in greatest danger of experiencing extreme heat.

Anywhere

The researchers also cautioned that statistically implausible extremes, when current records are broken by margins that seemed impossible until they occurred, could happen anywhere. These unlikely events were found to have transpired in almost a third (31%) of the regions assessed where observations were deemed reliable enough between 1959 and 2021, such as the 2021 Western North America heatwave.

Co-author Dann Mitchell, Professor in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “Being prepared saves lives. We have seen some of the most unexpected heatwaves around the world lead to heat-related deaths in the tens of thousands. In this study, we show that such record smashing events could occur anywhere. Governments around the world need to be prepared.”

Human-induced climate change is causing an increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves, which have the potential to lead to thousands more excess deaths globally.

Improving our understanding of where society may not be ready for climate extremes can help prioritize mitigation in the most vulnerable regions. In recognition of the dangerous consequences of climate change, evidenced by the work of its climate experts, in 2019 the University of Bristol became the first UK university to declare a climate emergency.

Heatwave In Spain

Media reports from different regions of the world said:

A spring heatwave across parts of southern Europe is seeing temperature records for April broken in many countries. Unseasonably high temperatures continue to affect large parts of Spain. The country has been enveloped by a mass of warm, dry air from north Africa.

Spain’s weather agency says these temperatures are typically seen in summer. The risk of wildfires is also high, and farmers in the country are warning of the catastrophic effect the weather is having on their crops.

A blistering and unseasonable heatwave has struck southern Spain, Portugal and Morocco this week, with temperatures approaching 40°C (104°F) in some regions.

The hot weather has heaped further climatic stress on southern Europe, which is already under a severe drought that is threatening to push up food prices. Here is what we know about why the record-breaking heat is occurring, and how it could be linked to climate change.

On 27 April, Spain recorded its hottest-ever April temperature at Cordoba airport in southern Spain, which reached 38.8°C according to the Spanish meteorological service. This smashed the previous record of 37.4°C, set in April 2011 in Murcia.

Portugal also recorded its highest ever April temperature of 36.9°C at Mora, in the centre of the country, on the same day, while in Marrakech, Morocco, temperatures reached a record 41.3°C (106°F).

These temperatures are 10 to 15°C above the seasonal average, according to the UK Met Office.

Hot Air From North Africa

The heatwave is being driven by a mass of very hot air travelling from north Africa into southern Europe, coupled with a slow-moving high pressure system that is suppressing rainfall and keeping skies clear, allowing heat to build.

The ongoing drought in these countries is likely to be also playing a part. Moist soils provide a cooling effect as the water they contain evaporates. If soils are dry, little of the sun’s energy is used for evaporation and transpiration, leaving more solar radiation to accumulate as surface warming.

Erich Fischer at ETH Zurich in Switzerland says dry soils can increase the severity of a heatwave by 2 to 3°C. “Drought is basically an amplifier of the heatwave,” he says. But, he notes, it is unusual to see this effect so early in the year. “Typically at this time of year, even in southern Europe, the soils still have humidity,” he says.

Any heatwave today is made more severe because of the background rate of warming under climate change, says Fischer. But the sheer volume of record-breaking severe heat events seen in recent years should cause alarm.

Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam

Southern Europe and north Africa are not the only parts of the world experiencing extreme heat right now. South-East Asia has also been hit by extreme heat in recent weeks, with record temperatures of up to 45°C recorded at monitoring stations across Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam earlier this month. “Records should be very rare these days,” says Fischer. “But they are occurring all over the place.”

There is some emerging evidence that suggests cold sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean may influence the occurrence of extreme heat in Europe, by influencing the movement of the jet stream and ocean currents.

The current heatwave gives meteorologists little indication about what will happen during the northern hemisphere summer months. However, if the drought persists, Europe and north Africa could be more susceptible to extreme heat if a high pressure system hits later this year. “It is too early to say what these spring extreme temperatures will mean for the values in summer,” Paul Hutcheon at the Met Office Global Guidance Unit said in a blog post earlier this week. “But the dry ground will mean that further heatwave conditions have the potential to lead to even higher temperatures later in the year.”

Canada

After a record-setting hot summer in 2022, Canada could be in for another scorching season, according to the Farmer’s Almanac’s long-range forecast.

The report says most regions across Canada will experience an “unrelenting” heat, mainly felt at the end of June throughout early September with some temperatures expected to reach over 32 C.

The Prairies may see “broiling” temperatures with above-average precipitation, while Quebec is expected to be scorching and drier than normal temperatures. Ontario is likely to experience more humid and soggy temperatures while B.C. and Atlantic provinces will likely have dry but seasonal temperatures, according to the Almanac.

Additionally, the Farmer’s Almanac is expecting rainfall to be above normal in parts of Central Canada including the Prairies, Rockies and the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, parts of Quebec and the Maritimes could experience below-normal precipitation.

Cold In Northern And Eastern Europe

In contrast to the sweltering temperatures of southern Europe, much of northern and eastern Europe – including the UK – have been facing below average temperatures this week.

While a jet stream wave is bringing warm air over south-west Europe, cold air is being pulled down from the Arctic over the UK and northern Europe. But forecasters expect the cold snap to end within the next few days, bringing temperatures back closer to average across much of the UK by next week.

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