A new study shows that the worst heat waves will become more frequent and hotter across the globe if measures aren’t taken to cap greenhouse gas emissions, the National Center for Atmospheric Research announced Tuesday.
But it isn’t too late — curbing emissions now could provide some relief, according to the study.
If left unchecked, greenhouse gases will exacerbate the world’s deadliest heat waves, known as 20-year extreme heat events, the NCAR warned in a new study published in the journal Climatic Change. As the name suggests, these events happen once every two decades, but the new data suggest that these heat waves could become yearly occurrences for 60 percent of the planet by 2075.
Even with NCAR’s grim estimates of these extreme weather phenomena, Claudia Tebaldi, climate statistician for NCAR and co-author of the study, said in a statement that “we still have time to avoid a large portion of the impacts.”
If global leaders were able to enact policies that cut emissions, the study said only 18 percent of Earth’s land area would be affected by yearly heat waves in 2075.
The study, funded by the Department of Energy, also determined that extreme heat waves would be hotter in the future. By 2050, a 20-year heat wave would be 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it might be today for 60 percent of the land on Earth. Another 10 percent of land areas would be sweltering with temperatures that are nine degrees Fahrenheit hotter than what would be expected for an extreme heat wave today.
Researchers have previously found that heat waves — exceptionally high temperatures for three or more days in a row — have higher death tolls than other weather disasters, surpassing the impact of tornadoes and hurricanes.
A 2010 heat wave that hit Russia was blamed for 55,000 deaths, while death toll estimates following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina never topped 2,000. A 2003 heat wave in Europe lingered for weeks, killing more than 70,000 people in the region. It’s the worst heat wave in recorded history.
While record-setting high temperatures are associated with heat waves, it’s the high nighttime temperatures that prove more taxing on the human body. Greenhouse gases prevent temperatures from cooling down at night, adding to the heat stress on the body. The sick, elderly and children are particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses.