Climate change linked to more intense heat waves since 1979

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Heat waves, those prolonged periods of excessive heat, are becoming more severe and lasting longer worldwide, posing a growing threat to people and ecosystems.

A recent study, highlighted in Science Advances, offers new insights into how climate change is intensifying these heat waves in several critical ways.

Since the late 1970s, the pace at which heat waves move across the globe has slowed by 20%. This means that the sweltering heat remains in one place longer, exposing people to dangerous temperatures for extended periods.

Furthermore, the frequency of these heat waves has surged by 67%. Not only are they occurring more often, but they’re also hotter and cover larger areas than they did four decades ago.

This study stands out because it doesn’t just focus on the temperature and size of heat waves; it also examines their duration and movement.

According to researchers Wei Zhang from Utah State University and Gabriel Lau from Princeton University, the length of global heat waves has increased from an average of eight days in the early 1980s to 12 days in recent years.

This change signals a significant shift in how heat waves affect us, stressing the importance of understanding their behavior to mitigate their impacts.

Regions around the world are experiencing these changes differently. Eurasia, for instance, has seen a notable extension in the duration of heat waves.

Africa is where heat waves have slowed down the most, while North America and Australia are facing the greatest increases in the severity of these events, considering both temperature and coverage area.

This escalating threat is attributed to the increased emissions from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, which trap more heat in the atmosphere.

The researchers used computer simulations to compare the current climate with a hypothetical one without these emissions, concluding that the observed worsening of heat waves could not have happened in a world without human-induced climate change.

The slowing down of heat waves is partly due to changes in atmospheric patterns, such as the jet stream, which are now weaker and move weather systems along more slowly.

This slowdown means that heat waves are not being pushed along as quickly as before, causing prolonged periods of extreme heat.

The implications of this study are clear and dire: with heat waves becoming hotter, lasting longer, and occurring more frequently, their impact on human health, agriculture, and the environment is set to increase.

This underscores the urgent need for global efforts to address climate change, to mitigate the worsening of heat waves and protect communities worldwide from their devastating effects.

The research findings can be found in Science Advances.

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