During a summer of punishing heat, Greek officials and researchers are thinking about naming individual heatwaves to help keep people safe when temperatures soar. It’s part of a bigger push internationally to create a system for naming and ranking heatwaves, similar to the process for major storms.
“Heatwaves cause a lot of deaths; they don’t make noise and they may not be visible but they’re a silent killer,” Kostas Lagouvardos, research director at the National Observatory of Athens, recently told The Observer, a Sunday paper published by Guardian Media Group. “We believe people will be more prepared to face an upcoming weather event when the event has a name.”
Extreme heat kills 5 million people a year around the world, one recent study found. Many of those deaths could be prevented by encouraging people to prepare for and find shelter from the heat, and by building more heat-resilient neighborhoods. The hope is that official names will prevent extreme heat events from sneaking up on people and make disaster preparedness for extreme heat a more urgent priority.
Greece has been wracked with repeated heatwaves this summer, which have also stoked devastating wildfires. The worst heatwave to hit the country in several decades landed in August, when temperatures soared to a record-breaking 115.3 degrees Fahrenheit (46.3 degrees Celsius).
Even under normal circumstances, Athens is the hottest capital city in mainland Europe. In July, Athens named former deputy Mayor Eleni Myrivili its new “chief heat officer,” the first such role in Europe. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Myrivilli said talks are underway over whether to name heatwaves after people or cities.
The World Meteorological Organization already comes up with names for tropical storms. The practice of giving storms a human name started in the 1950s because it was easier than referring to them using latitude and longitude. Now, storm names like Sandy, Maria, and Katrina are thought to make it easier to issue warnings to the public and drum up news coverage.
Creating a similar naming convention globally for heatwaves is the top priority of a new Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance forged last year. Its members include the City of Athens, as well as dozens of partners from other cities and charities including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center.
If the alliance succeeds in its goals, new names for heatwaves would also come with a ranking. That’s also similar to tropical storms, which are given a category from one to five based on their wind speeds. Ranking heatwaves could be “trickier” Lagouvardos told The Observer, because risk can depend on population density and differences in temperatures from place to place. But temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) could be the benchmark for naming a heatwave, according to Lagouvardos.
“Naming heat waves as a global threat is the first step to being able to mitigate the risk to vulnerable communities,” California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said in a press release when the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance formed. Older people, children, and city neighborhoods with more residents of color and fewer green spaces are often more vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. Regions with typically cooler weather can also be uniquely vulnerable because cities and homes weren’t built to stand the heat, and residents haven’t had to prepare for such extremes in the past.
Whatever plans ultimately materialize in Greece or elsewhere, heatwaves are becoming even more formidable threats because of global warming. Extreme heat events have already become more common across much of the world, and more record-shattering heatwaves are forecast for the future.