Is climate change to blame for Europe’s record heatwaves?

Countries across the Northern Hemisphere have been sweltering. Here’s what scientists say is happening.

While Australia is in the midst of winter, the Northern Hemisphere has been baking. Record-breaking temperatures have been recorded in Europe, the US, Canada and the Middle East this month.

In the UK, people have been flocking to the seaside to enjoy the longest sunny spell in over 40 years. In Sweden, an unusually early summer heatwave has seen wild elks cooling off in lakes next to startled swimmers.

Yet the soaring heat has also taken a far more serious toll.

In Greece, at least 82 people have been killed after wildfires ripped through coastal areas near Athens and dozens of people have died in Japan as “unprecedented” scorching temperatures climbed as high as 40C.

An aerial photo shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in Mati, east of Athens.
Source: AP

The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) has reported that 2018 is set to be the fourth-hottest year on record - behind 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Experts say this is the new normal – and that heatwaves will only intensify.

What’s caused the extreme weather?

Currently, a high-pressure weather system is lingering over Europe for longer than normal, meaning winds and rain have been driven further north.

Areas including the UK have also experienced one of the driest, sunniest and warmest summers.

A graphic from Inside Climate News showing extreme weather incidents around the globe.
Source: Paul Horn/Inside Climate News

“It’s not unusual to have heatwaves, sometimes we have hot summers and sometimes we have cooler summers, but this year has been quite remarkable,” Dr Andrew King, a climate scientist from the University of Melbourne, told SBS News.

Is climate change to blame?

The heatwave has been spread far and wide this summer, with temperatures in the Arctic Circle even topping 30C. Many countries have recorded national highs, with Japan peaking at 41.1C and California in the US reaching 48.9C. 

Some argue it's partly due to a combination of North Atlantic ocean temperatures and the weather.

But most experts agree these heatwaves are also linked to climate change and global warming.  

“We know that greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the likelihood of record hot temperatures than in a world without human-induced climate change,” Dr King said.

“As a result, we are seeing more heatwaves and hot summer temperatures.”

On Friday, an international World Weather Attribution study revealed that climate change due to human activity made the current heatwave in Europe more than twice as likely to occur.

Forest fires and cracked runways

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, from the University of New South Wales’ Climate Change Research Centre, told SBS News a shift has been happening since the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels.

“Greenhouse gas emissions have caused global temperatures to increase by 1C. You only need a small change in global temperature to see a huge rise in intensity and frequency,” she said.

Two boys jump in the Kattensloot canal in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in July during the first heatwave in three years.
Source: AAP

The hot and dry weather has coincided with ferocious wildfires which have torn through Europe. In the Netherlands alone, 1,143 forest fires were counted in the first 25 days of July, compared with 187 in the same month last year.

“If you have a heatwave, the fuel that drives forest fires dries out so it increases the chance of wildfires,” Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said. “It’s what’s happening in Sweden, Greece and Spain.”

Infrastructure has also failed to cope.  

Cross-channel rail operator Eurotunnel cancelled thousands of tickets after "extreme temperatures" and malfunctioning air conditioning disrupted services. In the German city of Hanover, airport runways cracked while power plants slowed production in France and Finland due to the heat.

Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said the rise in temperatures has come as “no surprise” because scientists have been warning about the effect of global warming for years. But she pointed out that even their warnings may have underestimated how “severe” these heatwaves could be.

A sign of things to come?

Signatories to the Paris climate agreement have pledged to keep global warming below 2C but both academics SBS News spoke to say it is optimistic.

“At the moment, we are more on track for 3-5C which means summers like the one we are seeing this year are going to become the norm,” said Dr King.

“The number of people experiencing hot summers could rise quite dramatically. In 2C weather, our research has shown typically about 140 million people in Europe alone would experience a summer beyond any we have recorded up to this point. So it’s quite alarming.”

Even with countries turning away from coal to renewable energy sources, Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said they still need to be better prepared for extreme heat.

The thermometer registers over 40C in Tajimi City, Japan.
Source: AP

“It takes time for the climate system to adapt,” she said.

“Some greenhouse gas emissions last in the atmosphere for a couple of decades. We have to consider how the ocean responds and absorbs CO2, you have to consider ice melt, and we have to look at how quickly we reduce our emissions.

“There’s no two ways about it – no matter what model you use, heatwaves will get worse and they will become more intense.”

Published 31 July 2018 at 4:50pm, updated 31 July 2018 at 5:32pm
By Sophie Gidley