ThinkProgress

New study: ‘Super heat waves’ of 131°F coming if global warming continues unchecked

High temperatures have fueled wildfires in France. CREDIT: AP/Claude Paris

In Europe, the recent heat wave was so extreme — with temperatures reaching 111°F (44°C), fueling wildfires and wasp attacks — it was nicknamed “Lucifer.” In the Middle East, as temperatures soared to 121°F (50°C), “birds in Kuwait have reportedly been dropping from the sky,” the International Business Times reported Friday.

But, new research says, we ain’t seen nothing yet. A new study by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Union’s science and research lab, finds that “if global temperatures rise with 4°C [7°F], a new super heat wave of 55°C [131°F] can hit regularly many parts of the world, including Europe” and the United States.

The study looks at “humid heat waves at different warming levels” up to 4°C. A 4°C rise is what we would expect if the Trump administration’s sweeping reversal of climate policies continue to prevail, and both domestic and global climate action are undermined.

The reason for looking at the combined effect of heat and humidity is that “warm air combined with high humidity can be very dangerous as it prevents the human body from cooling down through sweating, leading to hyperthermia.” This combination, measured by the heat index or apparent temperature, is very dangerous to humans (and other living things), as the chart below, from the National Weather Service, describes.

CREDIT: NOAA/NWS

Europe’s heat wave, Lucifer, has already exceeded 104°F (40°C) in many countries and reached as high as 111°F (44°C) in southern Spain (without even factoring in humidity). The UK Sun reported that “hospital admissions have spiked 15-20 percent in Italy, where at least three people have died.” Wildfires fueled by Lucifer have swept across Southern Europe. Crops in many countries are expected to be severely damaged. Romanian media reported that there have been dozens of wasp attacks in recent weeks, and “due to the heat, they became very aggressive and dangerous.”

The JRC study explains that with total warming of 1.5°C or 2°C, “highly populated regions, such as the Eastern U.S. and China, could experience heat waves with magnitude greater than the one in Russia in 2010 (the most severe of the present era).”

The Russian heat wave of 2010 was so devastating to crops that it led Russia to ban grain exports for over a year, which in turn helped drive record high global food prices that led to civil strife in many countries. “It is possible to say there was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat,” Alexander Frolov, head of the Russian Meteorological Center, said in 2010.

The new heat waves described in the JRC report will be brutal and unprecedented. “The apparent temperature peak during such humid-heat waves can be greater than 55 °C” [131°F], the study explains. “Humid-heat waves with these conditions were never exceeded in the present climate, but are expected to occur every other year at 4°C global warming.”

These are truly heat waves the likes of which have never been seen. Yet they will become commonplace around the globe. The Southeastern United States would be one of the hardest hit places, as the chart below depicts. On the left are the chances of heatwave each year exceeding a heat index of 40°C (104°F) in three scenarios of global warming: 1.5°C,  2°C, and 4°C. On the right are the chances of annual heat waves in the region exceeding a heat index of 131°F.

CREDIT: JRC

As maps C and F above show, if we allow President Donald Trump’s climate inaction to triumph, then by century’s end, much of the world (including the eastern half of the U.S.) will see 104°F heatwaves essentially every year — and 131°F heat waves every two or three years. Indeed, under that scenario, we’d see warming of 2°C (maps B and E) around mid-century.

Staying below 2°C rise requires all nations of the world, including ours, to not merely achieve our emissions reduction pledges made in Paris in December 2015, but to keep strengthening those reductions every few years until total global emissions are zero sometime in the second half of the century. And that can’t happen as long as Donald Trump — or any comparable global warming denier — is in office.