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Extreme Heat Events: Do They Pose a Real Threat?

Updated: Mar 24

Extreme heat events have been increasing globally, and their effects are becoming more and more dangerous.

Extreme heat refers to “stagnant, warm air masses and consecutive nights of high minimum temperatures”; and as the climate condition worsens, these extreme heat events are only becoming more prevalent.

The relationship between climate change and extreme heat events has been extensively verified, and more and more people have been experiencing the effects of extreme heat. 

Based on clear observational evidence, scientists are confident that high-temperature extremes have become more widespread and intense. The latest Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is virtually certain that human-induced climate change is the driving factor behind extreme heat changes. With the rapidly increasing environmental and climate changes that have been occurring globally, the IPCC has concluded that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising of global average sea level.”

Some may assume that extreme heat waves are at most uncomfortable and rarely harmless. The facts say otherwise.

Heat-related illnesses, such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and death have been associated with high-temperature events, and pose a serious public health threat. The National Weather Service has also deemed extreme heat events the deadliest weather phenomenon in the US for the past 30 years, on average. 

(National Weather Service)

Heat waves begin with a high-pressure system called an anticyclone, which causes atmospheric pressure to build, and then creates a sinking column of air that compresses, heats up and dries out. As the heat energy accumulates, temperatures rise and can last for days or even weeks if the pressure system is locked in place. 

As human reliance on fossil fuels has continued to grow throughout the past century, attribution science has shown that climate change brought on by greenhouse gasses and released by fossil fuels has only exacerbated extreme heat events. For example, researchers have found that after a summer 2019 heat wave caused 2,500 deaths in Western Europe, climate change made the heat five times as likely as it would have been in a world that did not experience global warming. 

As humans burn fossil fuels, more and more greenhouse gasses are added to the atmosphere, which in turn traps more heat energy and increases average temperatures, which will also increase extreme temperatures. These extreme heat events don’t just diminish individual health but affect economies, agriculture, weather events, and travel, and even play a role in international relations and foreign conflicts.  

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