Today’s record-breaking heatwaves will be the norm by 2050, study warns

GUANGZHOU, China — The record-breaking temperatures along America’s east coast and in Europe this summer will likely be the norm within the next three decades, according to new research. Climate researchers in China say that extreme heatwaves will increase by more than 30 percent as we get closer to 2050.

The burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are the main drivers of global warming, the team adds. This summer’s heatwaves have already turned deadly, with the United Kingdom recording the hottest day ever (surpassing 104 degrees Fahrenheit) on July 19.

Wildfires have also swept through Europe and the United States, where more than a third of the country under heat warnings for more than a week. Now, an analysis of atmospheric circulation patterns and greenhouse gases suggests the crisis is worse than feared.

The findings are based on data from just over a year ago, when nearly 1,500 people died as average temperatures in the U.S. and Canada more than doubled.

“An extraordinary and unprecedented heatwave swept western North America in late June of 2021, resulting in hundreds of deaths and a massive die-off of sea creatures off the coast as well as horrific wildfires,” says study lead author Dr. Chunzai Wang from the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology in a media release.

“In this paper, we studied the physical processes of internal variability, such as atmospheric circulation patterns, and external forcing, such as anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”

Heatwave study map
(Credit: Jiayu Zheng)

Study predicts more frequent extreme heatwaves

Computer simulations found greenhouse gases are the main reason for increased temperatures in the past and will likely continue to be the main contributing driver of global warming. Atmospheric circulation patterns describe how air flows and influences surface temperatures around the planet.

Both can change based on natural warming from the Sun, intrinsic atmospheric processes, and Earth’s own rotation. These configurations are responsible for daily weather, as well as long-term patterns comprising climate. Using observational data and climate models, the researchers identified three specific ocean temperature phenomena during the 2021 heatwave.

They are known as the North Pacific, the Arctic-Pacific Canada, and the North America patterns, and they accelerate human-induced warming.

“The North Pacific pattern and the Arctic-Pacific Canada pattern co-occurred with the development and mature phases of the heatwave, whereas the North America pattern coincided with the decaying and eastward movements of the heatwave,” Dr. Wang says. “This suggests the heatwave originated from the North Pacific and the Arctic, while the North America pattern ushered the heatwave out.”

However, they have overlapped before, without triggering an extreme heatwave. Dr. Wang and the team used state of the art programs known as CMIP6 (Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 to study the changing global climate.

“From the CMIP6 models, we found that it is likely that global warming associated with greenhouse gases influences these three atmospheric circulation pattern variabilities, which, in turn, led to a more extreme heatwave event,” Wang concludes.

“If appropriate measures are not taken, the occurrence probability of extreme heatwaves will increase and further impact the ecological balance, as well as sustainable social and economic development.”

The 104-degree landmark in London broke the previous records of 101.6 and 102.4, recorded just three years ago in 2019. Climate experts describe the temperature record as a harbinger of rising risks to lives and livelihoods for at least the next 30 years.

The findings are published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

South West News service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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