The Hot Zone

Hot as France

Posted by Alison Hawkes on June 9, 2010
Category : Climate Science and Scientists

The European heat wave the summer of 2003 is still etched in many Europeans’ minds, and my own.

I was having the time of my life hiking through rural, southern France at the time, but couldn’t figure out why I could barely make 7 miles before passing out on a picnic blanket. After finally reaching a town with a newspaper circular, I found out what everyone else already knew: it was damn hot — on the order of 105 degrees. I headed north, but Paris wasn’t any cooler.

Whether or not this heat wave had anything directly to do with climate change — it was one of the hottest on record — it sure did raise awareness of how vulnerable we all are to the heat. About 40,000 people died as a result of seven unrelenting days of intense sunshine. Stone and concrete homes did not cool off at night, as they usually do, and many areas had no air conditioning.

Temperature anomaly in Europe, July 2003, NASA

If they haven’t done so already, Europeans need to start rethinking how they handle the heat. Because a lot more of it is coming. According to a research paper published in Nature Geoscience this month, heat waves in Europe are going to become more frequent and severe this century.

For Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean, the number of heat wave days is projected to increase from two days per summer (1961-1990 rates) to around 13 days from 2021-2050 and then onto 40 days from 2071-2100.

Heat waves are defined as a spell of at least six consecutive days with maximum temperatures higher than what you see 90 percent of the time within a control period (1961–1990).

All the  characteristics of heat waves — frequency, amplitude, duration — are expected to be more severe than the past. The number of heatwaves in the Mediterranean is expected to increase from about one every 3 to 5 summers, to a striking 2 to 3 per season by 2071. They’ll also last 2 to 5 times longer by that date.

The places with the highest impact will be low altitude river basins and the Mediterranean coastline, which would see little reduction in heat-amplifying humidity because they’re close to water.

So long vacations to Marseilles and Nice. For anyone living there, the researchers led by Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Zürich, Switzerland, see the projections as “alarming.” An aging population would probably be harder hit, while the model doesn’t even address the situation for urban residents, who would be even hotter because of the effects of living in an urban heat island. The researchers write::

“Some of the most densely populated European regions, such as the urban areas of Athens, Bucharest, Marseilles, Milan, Rome and Naples, would experience the severest changes in health indicators.”

-Alison Hawkes

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