European heatwave – Global SMC Expert Reaction

Temperature records have been smashed across western Europe and the UK, as a heatwave sweeps across the region.

The soaring temperatures have caused hundreds of deaths in Spain and Portugal, and wildfires have broken out across the continent.

The UK and Spanish Science Media Centres asked experts to comment. Spanish language comments are also available.

Prof Hannah Cloke, natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading (UK), comments:

“This unprecedented red warning for extreme heat is a wake-up call about the climate emergency. We have had heatwaves in the UK before, but the intensity of heat that has been forecast, which will either break UK records or at least get very close, is enough to kill people and animals, damage property, and hobble the economy.

“Even as a climate scientist who studies this stuff, this is scary. This feels real. At the start of the week I was worried about my goldfish getting too hot. Now I’m worried about the survival of my family and my neighbours.

“These warnings are excellent. They are based on a strong likelihood of an extreme event occurring, and give advice on the actions people should take to keep themselves safe. Of course, the warning system will only be successful if people heed the warnings and take the actions necessary to keep themselves and others safe.

“Exactly one year on from the record floods in Germany, we should remember the lesson from that tragedy. Those floods were well forecast days in advance, but due to a range of failures in the chain of communication and action, people didn’t know what to do, and hundreds died. Heat kills more people than floods, and high ground from heat can be hard to find.”

Conflict of interest statement: Prof Hannah Cloke is a natural hazards researcher & climate expert. Her research is funded by UKRI NERC, UKRI EPSRC, FCDO & the European Commission. She is a member of UKRI NERC council and a fellow of ECMWF. She advises the Environment Agency and DEFRA on environmental hazards.

Prof Nigel Arnell, Professor of Climate System Science at the University of Reading (UK), comments:

“Our services and infrastructure are designed to cope with ‘normal’ weather, and many organisations have plans in place to deal with what they think of as ‘extreme’ conditions. However, we’re seeing more and more examples of extremes, and we’ve also seen evidence that we’re not as well prepared as we thought – look back to Storm Arwen.

“In the short term, we need to make sure our emergency plans are fit for purpose, and that we can act on the good warnings we get from the Met Office. But we can’t keep on dealing with extremes in crisis mode. They’re happening more and more frequently, so we need to improve our resilience to extreme weather events. This means not only making sure new buildings and infrastructure are designed to cope with a changing climate – the new Building Regulations on overheating are a good start – but also retrofitting our poorly performing stock of buildings. This will help us deal with rising energy bills in winter too.

“We need to make sure our infrastructure and important bits of kit are resilient to the higher temperatures we are seeing this week and expecting to see more in the future. And we need to build in more greenery in our cities to lower temperatures.

“However, whilst the individual technical and behavioural solutions are relatively straightforward progress is limited because responsibilities for action are spread across departments, agencies, private sector organisations and individuals. We will only make real progress when adaptation and resilience is given a high enough political priority.”

No conflict of interest.

Ernesto Rodríguez Camino, Senior State Meteorologist. Spanish Meteorological Association (Spain), comments:

“The current heat wave that is dramatically affecting Spain is a preview of the climate that awaits us as a consequence of the unstoppable increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere due mainly to the widespread – and still growing – use of fossil fuels (coal, oil derivatives and natural gas).

“Estimates for the evolution of heat waves made with the help of climate models show increasingly frequent, intense and long heat waves, depending on the degree of increase of these three characteristics, depending on the path followed by global greenhouse gas emissions.

“At present, the attribution of an extraordinary event – such as the current heat wave – to current anthropogenic climate change can only be made in terms of a change in the probability of its occurrence and after numerical simulations and comparisons with real observations.

“Surely, the studies that will be carried out when the heat wave is over and all the data are analyzed will indicate that, with the current perturbed climate, the probability of occurrence of this event has increased with respect to the probability of occurrence in a hypothetical climate not perturbed by human action. More seriously, the probability of similar events will continue to increase if the causes of current climate change, i.e., increasing greenhouse gas emissions, are not controlled.”

No conflict of interest.

Ricardo Torrijo, Meteorologist at the State Meteorological Agency (Spain), comments:

“The heat wave that began last Saturday July 9 is associated with a fairly stable weather situation, with a ridge extending from North Africa, thermal, at low levels and high pressure over the peninsula, as well as an isolated depression in height (DANA) centered to the west of the peninsula. This situation, along with strong solar insolation and persistence, is resulting in high temperatures have been rising progressively, both maximum and minimum, reaching its peak on Wednesday and Thursday.

“The next displacement of the DANA towards the northeast could begin, from the beginning of next week, to alleviate the situation in the far west and northwest peninsular. However, the thermal dorsal will remain towards the east peninsular and could even return to settle again in much of the peninsula. Therefore, it is not clear when this situation may end. In fact, the latest runs of the numerical models (the models are complex computer programs where the behavior of the atmosphere is simulated by means of an infinite number of calculations made by a supercomputer), do not point out when the situation may end, since successive runs extend it more and more in time.

“One of the characteristics of this situation is its great persistence and if it continues at this rate it could become one of the longest since 1975 (the year since there are studies on these episodes). Another point of interest of this heat wave is its extension, since it is exceptional that it affects so many regions. On the other hand, it is also a heat wave that has given records of very high maximum and minimum temperatures, even in some reference observatories with long series. However, from the point of view of thermal records reached, even being a wave of very high temperatures, it does not stand out as much as for the two previous characteristics.

“In any case, before making all these assessments, it will be necessary to wait for the end of the current heat wave, whose end is still uncertain and whose consequences are being felt by the population, since the negative effects on comfort and health of extreme temperatures are well known, as well as for the environment; and for the stress they can produce in various plant and animal species and for the increased risk of fires associated with high temperatures and dryness.”

No conflict of interest.

Marc Santandreu, Meteorologist at Radiotelevisión Española (Spain), comments:

“There is a lot of criticism on social networks that we are giving so much importance to the heat these days because ‘in summer it has always been hot’. But the truth is that it is not, or at least not so intense.

“We must remember that a heat wave is an extreme phenomenon in which temperatures are exceeded that are very uncommon and, therefore, this heat is uncommon.

“Specifically, this heat wave is marked by an extremely warm air mass that is reaching temperatures of more than 30 ºC at about 1,500 meters above sea level, where orographic peculiarities have little to say. Values that can make it the most intense, along with the one we experienced last August. This is a fact to which, by the way, we will have to get used to and adapt. The reason, whether we like it or not, is called global warming.”

No conflict of interest.