Of course it could still be bad luck. It was at least 16 to 20 degrees warmer than usual in places like Vancouver and Leighton, and at least 4 degrees warmer than the usual heat wave there, killing hundreds of people. But these are really temperatures that fall outside the margins of current statistical calculations, let’s New study See, published by the Global Weather Referral Partnership.
“This computation is still fast, but the statistics are compelling,” says Wilko Hasleger, professor of climate systems at Utrecht University, who was not involved in the research. “They also look more broadly, at all kinds of physical processes and the impact of humans, and this group is getting better and better at that.”
The study represents a turning point. “We initially thought that the heat waves were compliant and gradually getting warmer,” says Gert Jan van Oldenburg of KNMI and one of the lead researchers behind the new study. But this disturbs our confidence. If you asked me a year ago if these temperatures would happen in this part of the world, the answer would have been: No, not at all. That’s what everyone said.
But the sweltering heat wave came anyway. This is why Van Oldenborgh and his colleagues calculated the new possibilities for these lightning-fast heat waves, given the fact that they do occur.
I barely succeeded on the first try. With all heat wave streaks up to 2020 including the world’s best will, extreme heat waves have remained simply impossible in statistical calculations. Only when the team included current temperature peaks in the calculations did the probability of an extreme heat wave rise once every 1,000 years. New climate models show that if the Earth’s temperature rises two degrees more than the average, such a heat wave will occur every 5 to 10 years.
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Wim Thiery, a professor of climate sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, who was not involved in the study, says the probability calculations are navigating very extraordinary heat waves in uncharted waters. “There is nothing to compare to this event, hence the stats become uncertain.”
What no one doubts is that greenhouse gas emissions will accelerate global warming and increase the chances of these types of heat waves occurring. “This is the most boring part of our research,” says van Oldenburg. “The interesting thing is why we suddenly see this leap. This is another step forward.
Diem Cuomo, who researches this question at VU Amsterdam and contributed to the new study, says the researchers do have suspects, but it’s not yet possible to predict how they together will cause such extreme heat. It may have something to do with the warm Arctic, which leads to the weakening of the so-called jet stream between the poles and the tropics in summer and areas of high pressure often remain in one place.
Previously, scientists could not clearly attribute extreme weather events to global warming. Today, severe weather is easier to imitate in computers, says Van Oldenburg, not only because it happens more often, but also because more and more measurements and computation data are publicly available.
This is exactly what makes this kind of quick analysis possible. “It’s very important that we actually have information from climate science two weeks after a heat wave,” Terry says. “Now it resonates with people and policy makers.”
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