Heat Waves Gone Wild

This summer we haven’t just had heat waves, we’ve seen them plaguing vast areas around the northern hemisphere. Intense heat in Sweden sparked an epidemic of wildfires in their drought-stricken forests, so bad that they had to ask other nations for help. A dozen of the wildfires were in the Arctic circle, no less.


Ouargla, Algeria noted the highest reliable temperature ever recorded in Africa at 51.3°C (124°F). Kumagaya, Japan saw the highest temperature ever recorded in Japan at 41.1°C (106°F), while the death toll hit 30 and thousands more needed hospital treatment for heat-related conditions. California broke so many temperature records in their heat wave that increased use of air conditioning caused power shortages. In Britain, the heat melted the roof of Glasgow’s Science Centre, and caused a garbage truck to get stuck in — not on, but in — the road when the asphalt melted.

Perhaps most unexpected, a blistering heat wave in Canada (yes, Canada!) has filled Montreal’s morgue with the bodies of those who died from the heat; many corpses had to be stored elsewhere in the city. Montreal coroner Jean Brochu said it was first time the city’s morgue had been overwhelmed this way.

The U.K. Guardian has an excellent report on the story. It points out that part of the reason for the global oven is the jet stream, which has been “stuck” in a wavy pattern which makes systems linger so long that the heat becomes unbearable. But it’s not just the jet stream; that has happened before. What makes this worse, noted Tim Osborn of the Climate Research Unit in the U.K., is that “The baseline on which these effects operated is very different today. Since 1976 we have had several decades of global warming — caused by rising carbon emissions – which has raised baseline global temperatures significantly.”

Even the stuck jet stream may be linked to man-made climate change. Mann et al. (2017) note that such events are linked to “high-amplitude quasi-stationary atmospheric Rossby waves,” and that climate change favors conditions of “quasi-resonant amplification (QRA),” possibly linked to amplified Arctic warming. So — not only are extreme heat waves worse because of man-made global warming, they may also be more likely because of man-made climate change.

The link between climate change and changes in the behavior of the jet stream is still tentative; as Mann et al. say, “Both the models and observations suggest this signal has only recently emerged from the background noise of natural variability.” Even if not, heat waves are still more common and more severe because of global temperature increase.

It may take another decade or even longer for such associations to be established definitively. This much is certain: the consequences are deadly. Can we afford to wait and see?


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10 responses to “Heat Waves Gone Wild

  1. Well-said. It’s rather remarkable to see this all happening in a year that is ‘only’ on track to be fifth- or sixth-warmest ever. (Though it is, I’m told, on track to be the warmest ‘La Nina’ year in the record–will that still hold if an El Nino does happen toward the end of the year?)

    But I had a look at the Climate Reanalyzer last week — https://climatereanalyzer.org/ –and basically, at that time everyplace with much human population had a warm anomaly sitting over it. I guess it’s the inverse of the current Arctic ice situation: in a steadily worsening baseline situation, sometime you are going to get favorable weather (Arctic sea ice), and sometimes you are going to get the reverse (global-scale heat waves).

    • Whachamacallit

      Oh is this year ranked for 5th or 6th warmest? I thought it was ranked for 4th or 5th!

      But yeah, I did also notice how for the Arctic Sea ice has actually had a pretty good year, as well as the Greenland Ice Sheet, but then we’re all sweating to death. I’m not sure if “ironic” is the right word, but it’s intersting.

      • Maybe 4th-6th? ;-)

        Al Rodger would know–he keeps tight track of the various major indices, including year-to-date means. Maybe he’ll weigh in.

  2. The new normal is quite hot and it’s going to get hotter as we continue to raise the CO2 saturation of the atmosphere. I am headed to the Washougal River for a couple of days to cool off with grandkids

  3. David B. Benson

    The multitudinous wildfires all across Siberia have been underreported. I happened to notice an article in the English language Siberian Times. I opine that it is much worse than in Sweden.

  4. I find the surface carbon monoxide concentration in earth.nullschool useful for checking up on global wildfire activity. Right now, the situation in Sweden seems pretty good now. There are fires in Canada, Alaska, and the western US. The worst over the last week or so was in Siberia north of Lake Baikal (now northeast of the lake). https://earth.nullschool.net/#current/chem/surface/level/overlay=cosc/orthographic=-244.94,66.59,535

  5. We ain’t seen nothing yet.
    Shift global temperatures outside of what earth has seen in the last twelve thousand years and the possible extreme events are so far from what we could expect since civilizations started as to be positively frightening.
    Even if we could halt the rise today the new climatic regimes will continue to emerge from the noise for decades to come.

  6. Without affecting the main point, a couple of asphalt issues:
    In Britain, the heat didn’t melt the roof of Glasgow’s Science Centre, but melted a black tarry substance which was used as a weatherproof membrane under the metal rood sheeting: likely to have been an asphalt (bitumen) compound…
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-44635107

    Similarly, when the garbage truck to get stuck in — not on, but in — the road, it’s reported as being a sinkhole opened up under the road by shrinkage, and when the truck wheels were on it they sank in through the softened asphalt.

    Less dramatic, perhaps, but the exceptional hot weather has continued unusually long. An area of the UK had some rain for a couple of days, and the forecast now is for cooling with further rain at the weekend, but it’s very warm right now!

  7. …too hot to think straight… meant to provide a link to the garbage truck info,
    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jul/06/sinkhole-traps-truck-as-uk-heatwave-takes-toll-on-roads
    must be said that the “melting road” exaggeration appeared in many reports.

  8. Would it be more appropriate to credit Jennifer Francis with linking
    jet stream behaviour and extreme weather?

    https://phys.org/news/2015-02-evidence-link-wavy-jet-stream.html

    She’s been trying to bring people’s attention to it for a good while.

    https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1029/2012GL051000