As northeast Asia bakes, climate scientists predict more extreme heat waves on the horizon

Time magazine reports: Northeast Asia is on fire. Yesterday temperatures in Shanghai hit an all-time high of 105.4ºF (40.8ºC), the hottest day in the coastal megacity since Chinese officials began keeping records some 140 years ago — during the Qing dynasty. On Aug. 12 the heat reached 105.8ºF (41ºC) in the southern Japanese city of Shimanto, the hottest temperature ever recorded in the country. Hundreds of people throughout South Korea have been hospitalized because of heatstroke, even as the government was forced to cut off air-conditioning in public buildings because of fears of a power shortage. As heat waves go, it’s a tsunami, similar to the brutally hot weather that singed Europe 10 years ago, which contributed to the deaths of over 30,000 people.

It’s also a glimpse of a blazingly hot future. We know that temperatures will generally rise as the globe warms thanks to increased greenhouse-gas emissions. (It’s right there in the name: global warming.) But as a new study published in Environmental Research Letters shows, the sort of scorching heat waves currently baking Northeast Asia are likely to become more frequent and more severe in the decades to come — and that’s going to happen no matter what we do about carbon emissions in the near future. There are some very uncomfortable summers on the horizon.

The study, by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany and the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain, used climate models to project how heat extremes would change over the next century. The scientists found that extreme heat waves like the one that baked much of the U.S. in 2012 — when the country had its warmest year on record — are projected to cover double the amount of land globally by 2020 and quadruple the territory by 2040. The most severe heat waves — so-called five-sigma events, because they would involve temperatures that are five standard deviations above the norm — would go from essentially nonexistent today to covering about 3% of the globe by 2040. [Continue reading…]

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