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More ‘record-shattering’ heatwaves are on the way

There are plenty of warning signs, including a new study

Heatwave Sets Record Temperatures In Portland
A thermometer reading 116 degrees Fahrenheit during a heatwave in Portland, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, June 28, 2021.
Maranie Staab/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Even more week-long, “record-shattering” heatwaves are coming for us. From now until 2050, if greenhouse gas emissions stay high, the odds of such heatwaves happening are two to seven times greater than they were over the past few decades, according to a new study. From 2051 to 2080, those prolonged, record-breaking events are expected to become three to 21 times more probable than they were in the past.

The authors of the new study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, used climate models to come to their conclusions. But there’s already plenty of evidence in the world around us that backs up this study and others that link climate change to more frequent and severe heatwaves. Yet another heat dome is stifling much of the US this week. That comes after a string of extreme heat events have already smashed hundreds of temperature records across the US this year.

While records are being broken left and right, there’s another metric to which the study calls attention. The research found that the rate of warming influences how insufferable future heatwaves are. So it’s not just how much hotter the world ultimately gets compared to preindustrial times that’s scary. How quickly the planet heats up actually has a bigger impact on the heatwaves we experience.

When a deadly heatwave hit the Pacific Northwest last month, we saw the dangerous whiplash that can come with a relatively cooler locale suddenly reaching boiling point. Seattle, Washington hit a record-breaking 108 degrees Fahrenheit on June 28th — significantly higher than its previous record of 103 degrees. And while much of the Western US was suffering through the heat that day, the Pacific Northwest saw a disproportionately high spike in emergency room visits in comparison. The region just wasn’t built for the heat in the way that, say, a desert community might be prepared. Washington’s roads literally buckled under the extreme conditions.

While the June 28th temperature record may not be the norm, city planners might want to heed advice from the authors of the new study and prepare for similar situations in the future. “The main message is that we need to prepare for more record heat events in the coming decades that shatter previous record temperatures by large margins,” lead author Erich Fischer said in an email to Axios.