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Study reveals countries most at risk from extreme heat

A recent study led by the University of Bristol emphasizes the need for better preparedness in regions across the world that are most susceptible to the devastating effects of extreme heat. The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, identifies areas such as Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Central America as being particularly high risk. 

The study reveals that these regions are more likely to experience unprecedented heat extremes due to a combination of socioeconomic vulnerability, the potential for record-breaking temperatures, and rapid population growth.

One of the main reasons behind the vulnerability of these regions is that countries which have yet to experience the most intense heatwaves often only introduce adaptation measures after the event has occurred. Limited healthcare and energy provision further exacerbate the risks. 

Other hotspots identified by the researchers include Beijing and Central Europe, where millions of people would be adversely affected if record-breaking heatwaves were to occur.

“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,” said study lead author and climate scientist Dr. Vikki Thompson.

To pinpoint the regions most likely to experience extreme heat events, the researchers employed extreme value statistics, a method used to estimate the return periods of rare events. They analyzed large datasets from climate models and observations, focusing on the areas where temperature records are most likely to be broken soonest and the communities consequently in greatest danger of experiencing extreme heat.

The researchers also warn that statistically implausible extremes, such as the 2021 Western North America heatwave, could occur anywhere. In their study, they found that such unlikely events transpired in almost a third (31%) of the regions assessed where observations were deemed reliable enough between 1959 and 2021.

Study co-author Dann Mitchell is a professor in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment. He emphasized the importance of preparedness: “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.”

As human-induced climate change continues to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves, it is crucial to prioritize mitigation efforts in the most vulnerable regions. The study’s findings serve as a call to action for policymakers in hotspot regions to develop and implement strategies that reduce the risk of deaths and associated harms resulting from climate extremes.

In light of the growing threat posed by climate change, the University of Bristol became the first UK university to declare a climate emergency in 2019, reflecting the institution’s commitment to understanding and addressing the dangerous consequences of climate change.

More about extreme heat and heatwaves

Heatwaves and extreme heat events have significant impacts on both humanity and ecosystems. These impacts are exacerbated by climate change, which is causing a rise in the frequency, intensity, and duration of such events. Below are some of the key effects of heatwaves and extreme heat on humans and ecosystems:

Human health

Extreme heat can lead to heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and dehydration. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can be particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations like the elderly, young children, and those with pre-existing health conditions. Heatwaves can also exacerbate air pollution, contributing to respiratory issues like asthma and allergies.

Increased mortality

During severe heatwaves, there is often a spike in the number of heat-related deaths. For example, the 2003 European heatwave led to over 70,000 excess deaths, while the 2010 Russian heatwave caused an estimated 56,000 fatalities.

Agriculture and food security

High temperatures and prolonged heatwaves can negatively impact crop yields, livestock health, and overall agricultural productivity. This can lead to food shortages, higher food prices, and increased malnutrition.

Water resources

Heatwaves can increase evaporation rates, leading to reduced water availability for humans, agriculture, and ecosystems. They can also exacerbate drought conditions, contributing to water scarcity and increased competition for water resources.

Energy demand

As temperatures rise, the demand for cooling systems, such as air conditioning, increases. This can strain energy infrastructure and lead to power outages, further impacting vulnerable populations.


Extreme heat can have a detrimental effect on ecosystems, including coral reefs, forests, and wetlands. High temperatures can cause coral bleaching, reduce biodiversity, and increase the risk of wildfires, which can lead to habitat loss and the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Economic impact

The combined effects of heatwaves and extreme heat events can result in significant economic losses. Agriculture, tourism, and energy sectors are among the industries most affected by these events. Additionally, increased healthcare costs and reduced labor productivity due to heat-related illnesses can also strain economies.

Climate change is playing a significant role in exacerbating the impacts of heatwaves and extreme heat events. As global temperatures continue to rise due to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, heatwaves are becoming more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting. This increases the potential for devastating consequences on human health, ecosystems, and the global economy. 

Addressing climate change through mitigation and adaptation measures is crucial to reducing the risks and impacts associated with heatwaves and extreme heat events.


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