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Record breaking heat may have an underlying cause besides climate change

In July 2023, as relentless heatwaves and record heat scorched parts of the US, China, and southern Europe, scientists across the globe have been racing to uncover the underlying factors. 

While climate change and El Nino are known as primary culprits behind rising temperatures, new data has prompted researchers to question if there might be other accomplices in the recent outbreaks of record heat.

Root causes of heatwaves

As global temperatures continue to rise, breaking records and causing widespread distress, scientists are working to understand the root causes behind these alarming trends. 

While the usual culprits of climate change and El Niño are well-known, experts are investigating whether additional elements may be contributing to the unprecedented heat.

Record breaking heat

According to a recent report by the European climate agency Copernicus, July saw temperatures rise by an astonishing one-third of a degree Celsius above the previous record. 

Notably, this increase is particularly evident in our oceans, especially the North Atlantic, prompting some to question if other forces are at play. 

An unknown accomplice?

While the majority of scientists attribute the vast portion of this warming to human-induced climate change – primarily from burning fossil fuels – the natural phenomenon El Niño adds a slight push to the soaring temperatures. 

Yet, as Copernicus Director Carlo Buontempo suggests, “What we are seeing is more than just El Niño on top of climate change.”

Among the surprising hypotheses being investigated are the effects of cleaner air resulting from new shipping regulations and the influence of 165 million tons (150 million metric tons) of water spewed into the atmosphere by a volcano. 

Both could potentially be accelerating the Earth’s warming. These ideas, while unconventional, are now under serious consideration.

This July has been nothing short of extraordinary, with temperature records toppling in many parts of the northern hemisphere. 

China experienced an all-time high of 52.2°C, and the US saw nearly one-third of its population under heat warnings as temperatures soared past 100°F.

Europe wasn’t spared either, with the “Cerberus” and “Charon” heatwaves wreaking havoc, pushing temperatures in many regions up to 10°C above average.

The role of climate change

The World Weather Attribution service, a consortium of global scientists, has issued warnings regarding these developments. Their studies suggest that such intense heatwaves in the US and Europe would have been nearly impossible without the influence of climate change. 

Moreover, they assert that the scorching heat experienced in China was made at least 50 times more probable because of it.

Record heat events

According to Carbon Brief, record heat and extreme weather events have become major news, making headlines in 84 newspapers across 32 countries.

Illustrating the severity, Death Valley in California, known as the hottest place on Earth, recorded a staggering 53.3°C this July. Simultaneously, European cities like Rome registered record highs, and China’s Sanbao township broke national records with a reading of 52.2°C.

Vulnerable communities and ecosystems

Dr. Frederieke Otto is a senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. He noted that the findings are “absolutely not a surprise,” considering the long-standing predictions of climate scientists. 

However, Dr. Otto added a sobering perspective. He emphasized that societies and ecosystems are “much more vulnerable” to temperature changes than previously recognized.

These extreme heat events highlight the importance of global awareness and preparedness. As Julie Arrighi from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre pointed out, heatwaves are “amongst the deadliest natural hazards that we face each year.” 

The need for comprehensive health action plans and proactive measures to mitigate the impacts of high temperatures has never been more urgent.

More about El Niño

El Niño, which means “The Child” in Spanish, refers to the periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. But what causes El Niño, and how does it influence global weather patterns?

Origins of El Niño

At its core, El Niño starts when warm water from the western Pacific Ocean moves eastward. Typically, trade winds blow strongly from east to west, piling up warm surface water in the western Pacific.

However, when these winds weaken or reverse direction, the warm water surges back to the eastern Pacific. This shift disrupts the typical oceanic and atmospheric patterns.

The impact on global weather

El Niño does not merely warm the waters; it causes heatwaves and changes weather patterns around the world. It boosts rainfall in the southern U.S., often causing flooding, while Australia and Indonesia often experience droughts. Coastal regions in South America witness heavier-than-normal rainfall, leading to devastating floods in some years.

Coral reefs suffer during El Niño events. The warmer waters stress the coral, causing coral bleaching and even killing vast areas of reefs. Furthermore, fisheries in the eastern Pacific take a hit as warmer waters drive away the nutrient-rich cold currents that fish thrive on.

The economic and social impacts

El Niño has significant economic consequences. As it disrupts normal weather patterns, agriculture bears the brunt of its impact. Countries dependent on agriculture for their GDP and employment feel the effects the most. Crop yields drop, food prices rise, and the risk of wildfires increases in some regions.

Furthermore, the fluctuating weather patterns can lead to infrastructure damage. Excessive rainfall causes flooding and landslides, damaging homes, roads, and bridges. On the other end, prolonged droughts place stress on water resources, affecting both agriculture and urban areas.

Predicting and mitigating the effects

Scientists use a combination of satellite observations and ocean buoys to monitor sea surface temperatures and predict El Niño events. Advanced forecasting allows countries to prepare and mitigate some of the adverse effects. For instance, farmers can switch to drought-resistant crops if they expect less rainfall.

However, the unpredictability and scale of El Niño’s impacts still pose challenges. Even with the best preparations, nature’s power often surpasses human anticipation.

El Niño serves as a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness of global climate systems. While it originates in the Pacific, its reach spans continents, influencing weather patterns worldwide. As we advance our understanding of this phenomenon, the hope is to better prepare and adapt to its inevitable return.

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