Red Sox and Yankees faced off in London Stadium this past Saturday, the players no doubt expected something different. Instead of a typically dreary and cool British summer day, they got a 93-degree scorcher. Pitchers struggled to keep the ball in the park.
But busted ERAs were the least of the concerns as record temperatures swept across Western Europe, where previous heat waves had been surprisingly deadly. France recorded its highest temperature ever — nearly 115 degrees in Gallargues-le-Montueux, near Montpellier — on June 28. Temperatures in the country were 28 degrees above normal. Major school exams were postponed. In Germany, authorities sprayed down trees to keep them cool. Heat damaged Swiss train tracks. Wildfires blazed in Spain. Experts warn that the final toll will take weeks to determine.
What is already clear, however, is the heat wave’s potential connections to human-caused global warming. We do not say this simply because climate change makes heat waves in general more likely, though that is true. It is also because an international consortium of scientists released on Tuesday a report seeking to quantify how global warming may have played into last week’s highs in particular.
Experts with World Weather Attribution, a group that formed to determine quickly whether extreme events are connected to climate change, found that the probability of a heat wave with the features of last week’s has increased substantially — by at least a factor of five. “However,” their analysis noted, “the observations show it could be much higher still, a factor of 100 or more.” As best they can tell, events such as these are likely to strike roughly once every 30 years, and they are roughly 7 degrees hotter than the heat waves that would have struck with similar frequency a century ago.
In other words, the boost in heat-wave temperature seems to be much more pronounced than the average temperature increase over Europe as the world has warmed. The scientists speculated that the cause could be the way soil dries up in areas such as southern France, an effect that is getting stronger as global warming proceeds.
The results this time could be surprisingly harmful. Because it was preceded by a relatively cool period, people did not have a chance to acclimate themselves to hotter temperatures, as they had in dangerous midsummer heat waves in the past. “The full impact is only known after a few weeks when the mortality figures have been analysed,” the scientists wrote. For this reason, “heatwave mortality, while very significant compared to other disasters in terms of numbers of people killed, often attracts much less public attention than, for instance, deaths due to floods or storms.” This is despite the fact that climate change is bringing substantial increases in the number of days globally when heat-related deaths are expected to occur.
Global warming is not just some theory scrawled on a professor’s chalkboard somewhere. It is a reality that will burden human civilization for generations to come. The question for those in positions of power now is how much their children and grandchildren will have to suffer.