Feeling the Burn: Countries at Highest Risk for Devastating Heatwaves

Hot Sun Thermometer Heatwave Concept

Global research conducted by the University of Bristol highlights regions most vulnerable to the harmful effects of record-breaking heatwaves, including Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Central America. These areas are at higher risk due to a combination of unprecedented heat extremes and socioeconomic factors, with countries yet to experience intense heatwaves being especially susceptible. The study emphasizes the need for relevant action plans in hotspot regions to mitigate the risks and associated harms resulting from extreme heat events.

Researchers identified regions, such as Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Central America, as most vulnerable to record-breaking heatwaves, emphasizing the need for action plans to mitigate risks and harms.

A new study has highlighted under-prepared regions across the world most at risk of the devastating effects of scorching temperatures.

The University of Bristol-led research, published today (April 25) in the journal Nature Communications, shows that unprecedented heat extremes combined with socioeconomic vulnerability put certain regions, such as Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Central America, most in peril.

Countries yet to experience the most intense heatwaves are often especially susceptible, as adaptation measures are often only introduced after the event. A high chance of record-breaking temperatures, growing populations, and limited healthcare and energy provision, increase the risks.

Beijing and Central Europe are also on the list of hotspots, as if record-breaking heatwaves occurred in these densely populated regions millions of people would be adversely affected.

In light of the findings, the researchers are calling for policymakers in hotspot regions to consider relevant action plans to reduce the risk of deaths and associated harms from climate extremes.

Where Record Breaking Heatwaves Are Most Likely

Map showing where record breaking heatwaves are most likely. Regions of high risk have a current record return period under 100 years. Regions of low risk have already experienced heatwaves that appeared implausible before they occurred. Credit: University of Bristol

Lead author, climate scientist Dr. Vikki Thompson at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “As heatwaves are occurring more often we need to be better prepared. We identify regions that may have been lucky so far – some of these regions have rapidly growing populations, some are developing nations, some are already very hot. We need to ask if the heat action plans for these areas are sufficient.”

The researchers used extreme value statistics — a method to estimate the return periods of rare events — and large datasets from climate models and observations to pinpoint regions globally where temperature records are most likely to be broken soonest and the communities consequently in greatest danger of experiencing extreme heat.

The researchers also cautioned that statistically implausible extremes, when current records are broken by margins that seemed impossible until they occurred, could happen anywhere. These unlikely events were found to have transpired in almost a third (31%) of the regions assessed where observations were deemed reliable enough between 1959 and 2021, such as the 2021 Western North America heatwave.

Co-author Dann Mitchell, Professor in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “Being prepared saves lives. We have seen some of the most unexpected heatwaves around the world lead to heat-related deaths in the tens of thousands. In this study, we show that such record-smashing events could occur anywhere. Governments around the world need to be prepared.”

Human-induced climate change is causing an increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves, which have the potential to lead to thousands more excess deaths globally.

Improving our understanding of where society may not be ready for climate extremes can help prioritize mitigation in the most vulnerable regions. In recognition of the dangerous consequences of climate change, evidenced by the work of its climate experts, in 2019 the University of Bristol became the first UK university to declare a climate emergency.

Reference: “The most at-risk regions in the world for high-impact heatwaves” by Vikki Thompson, Dann Mitchell, Gabriele C. Hegerl, Matthew Collins, Nicholas J. Leach and Julia M. Slingo, 25 April 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-37554-1

5 Comments on "Feeling the Burn: Countries at Highest Risk for Devastating Heatwaves"

  1. Hottan Bothred | April 25, 2023 at 1:45 pm | Reply

    Northern Greenland? Baffin Island is at extreme risk of heat devistation too? Yakutia and Siberia, really? And India and most of Africa are low to no risk?

    They’ve basically recreated NOAA’s world map of total annual rainfall at low resolution, minus the areas of high rainfall.

    “Socioeconomic vulnerability” is painfully euphemistic.

    • Clyde Spencer | April 26, 2023 at 8:14 am | Reply

      Yes, it is ludicrous to claim that Greenland is at risk of “scorching temperatures.” When it does get warm in Greenland, it barely melts the surface snow, which generally stays close to freezing because the heat of crystallization keeps the water cool. Obviously, they have never dipped a foot into glacial meltwater.

      “We have seen some of the most unexpected heatwaves around the world lead to heat-related deaths in the tens of thousands. In this study, we show that such record-smashing events could occur ANYWHERE.”
      Only in their disturbed dreams that are detached from reality. No one lives in the interior of Greenland. Granted that no one in Greenland has air conditioning, even at Thule Air Base — because there is no need for it. When I visited there in early-July, it was 32 deg F, blustery, with a wind chill below freezing.

      This is typical hyperbole coming from lab researchers who are obsessed apparently with guilt for being human.

  2. Clyde Spencer | April 26, 2023 at 8:25 am | Reply

    The metric that they should have used was the probability of exceeding a heat index over ~100. They should also have taken the relative wealth of the countries into consideration, because rich countries either have, or could easily install, air conditioning. Instead, they apparently used the probability of temperature anomalies exceeding 2 or 3 sigma, regardless of the base temperature. Science isn’t what it used to be. It seems that today, what passes for being a ‘scientist,’ is what used to be considered a technician — someone who can run the equipment, but doesn’t grasp the big picture.

  3. Ralph Gardner | April 26, 2023 at 9:38 am | Reply

    This recent study shows that cold weather causes about 4.6 million deaths a year mainly through increased strokes and heart attacks, compared with about 500,000 deaths from hot weather.
    ‘Global, regional and national burden of mortality associated with nonoptimal ambient temperatures from 2000 to 2019: a three-stage modelling study’

    This study from 2015 says that cold weather kills 20 times as many people as hot weather and that moderately warm or cool weather kills far more people than extreme weather. Increased strokes and heart attacks from cool weather are the main cause of the deaths.
    ‘Mortality risk attributable to high and low ambient temperature: a multi-country observational study’ https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)62114-0/fulltext

  4. Ralph Gardner | April 26, 2023 at 9:39 am | Reply

    The geological climate of the Earth is still a 2.58-million-year ice age named the Quaternary Glaciation. The Earth is in a warm interglacial period that happens about every 100,000 years and lasts about 10,000 years which alternates with a cold glacial period that lasts about 90,000 years. The Earth still has around 200,000 glaciers and 11 percent of the land is permafrost. The ice age the Earth is in won’t end and the climate won’t officially change until all the natural ice melts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quaternary_glaciation

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