The scorching summer was officially the hottest on record, with previous highs either equalled or exceeded on four consecutive days. In the last ten years, those record-high temperatures have become increasingly frequent, occurring twice as much as record lows and affecting almost every country globally.
The impacts aren’t simply warmer weather; over 70,000 people died in Europe due to searing heat.
Other ramifications include worsening air pollution, higher amounts of ozone at ground level, droughts, wildfires and further melting of the polar ice caps.
So – why have recent years seen a sudden spike in temperatures, and what are governments doing to help tackle the waves of heat rolling over the world every summer?
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Factors That Contribute To Unprecedented Hot Summers
Climate change is recognised as the primary reason for temperatures to soar and stay high, where greenhouse gases produced by people mean that around a fifth of the global population now lives in an area where average temperatures have increased by at least 1.5°C.
A warmer climate means that water evaporates from the land, making conditions drier, more arid, and less able to support life. World Weather Attribution has found that climate change has doubled the potential for extreme wildfires in regions of Canada.
However, carbon emissions and their impact on the temperature of the planet are not the only cause:
- In 2022, the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha-apai erupted in the South Pacific. This event vaporised vast seawater while releasing water vapour into the ocean. The outcomes include an increase of around 0.03°C in global temperatures over the next few years.
- Solar radiation naturally ebbs and flows, generally on an eleven-year cycle. We are approaching the next peak, expecting to fall in 2025, which can add 0.05°C to the average temperatures worldwide.
Other elements include the El Niño winds, which extract radiating heat from warmer oceans, releasing that heat into the air and impacting worldwide temperatures by around 0.14°C.
Despite these and other contributing causes of higher temperatures, climate change remains the most significant issue. Human activity has warmed the planet by roughly 1.2°C since 1850, and scientists indicate that climate modelling shows no signs of a slowing trajectory.
The Impacts Of Extreme Heat
We often regard long, hot summers as a positive in cooler climates. However, sustained high heat is dangerous and can lead to severe natural disasters, including floods, forest fires, and other extreme weather events.
Politico reports that, in July 2023, sea temperatures around Florida and the Mediterranean exceeded 30°C, with temperatures around the Northern Hemisphere reaching as high as 45°C and above. China recorded a new record-high reading of 52.2°C in the middle of the month, where heat waves are now 1°C hotter than previous norms.
The effects aren’t simply hotter summers; heat waves also last much longer.
Scientists in the US have found that the average heatwave impacting an urban area now lasts for 40 days longer than in the 1950s, with a further 70 per cent increase in the number of days where temperatures exceed 32°C anticipated by 2050 if global warming continues unabated.
If the population remains static, the proportion of people living in areas with a heat index of 40°C or more yearly will increase from around 900,000 to over 90 million.
Extreme weather events in 2023 caused by heat
This summer has felt like chaos, with fires burning out of control across Europe and the Mediterranean, flooding across the US, extreme heat in North Africa and the Middle East, and flooding in Pakistan and India that has claimed hundreds of lives.
- Italy, Greece and Spain recorded temperatures above 45°C, with Sardinia recording heat of up to 48°C – compared to a peak of 48.8°C experienced in 2021 in Sicily. Major cities issued red alerts, warned residents to remain indoors, and forecast severe thunderstorms and flash flooding.
- In Rhodes, La Palma and Tenerife, thousands of people were evacuated, including stranded tourists, as firefighters struggled to bring wildfires under control – razing huge swathes of forest to the ground.
- At least five people were declared dead after flooding affected an area north of Philadelphia, where homes were washed away in New York State; a disaster called a ‘thousand-year event’ by the New York governor.
The situation was worse in regions which already struggled with extreme heat. Uruguay has experienced the worst water crisis on record, and areas in North Africa recorded overnight temperatures of 39.6°C, compared to daytime peaks of 47.5°C in Morocco and 48°C in Algeria.
One of the most recent disasters affected Hawaii, where wildfires on the island of Maui caused the deaths of 115 people, leaving around 400 missing from Lāhainā and meant that thousands lost homes and businesses. Many remaining properties are now unsafe due to toxic ash and debris from the flames.
Addressing Rising Global Temperatures
The Paris Climate Agreement, adopted by 196 United Nations countries in 2015, sets a goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above the average temperatures that were the norm in the preindustrial era, a period spanning up to 1850.
To meet this goal, carbon emissions have to reach a peak by, at the latest, 2025 and reduce by 43 per cent by 2030. Many countries that have signed up to the agreement have since introduced legislation as a legal commitment to reaching zero carbon emissions by 2050 – but their progress so far has been slow.
Analysis from Climate Action Tracker shows that the current pathway will mean the world is an average of 2.4°C hotter by the end of this century, compared to preindustrial temperatures – a very long way from the target of 1.5°C.
However, efforts and strategies continue to be introduced, and the involvement of countries like China, the USA and India – respectively among the biggest producers of carbon emissions globally – is a significant step.
China has now committed to reaching carbon-neutral status by 2060, and there are positive signs that it may be able to meet this goal far sooner than initially anticipated. The widespread switch to electric cars, hydrogen, wind and solar power are all beneficial. India has surpassed plans to install renewable energy generators by 2022 capable of producing 175 GW of capacity.
The original target has been extended to 480 GW due to rapidly falling costs and governmental support.
There may be a long way to go – but when President Biden decided to return to the Paris Agreement in 2021, following Trump’s withdrawal in November 2020, the urgency and sense of collective action returned apace.
The Impact of Record High Temperatures FAQ
Why are higher average temperatures dangerous?
Hotter weather means less surface water, drops in ocean volumes, decreases in the size of the polar ice caps, and leads to drought, wildfires, famine and other side effects such as insect infestations and disease outbreaks. Lower water supplies are linked to reduced crop growth, and the warmer the weather, the more likely these challenges are to affect urban areas and agricultural regions.
How many people have died due to extreme heat?
Experts disagree, with some citing an average of 10,000 deaths every year due to high temperatures. A new study last year found that over 61,000 people in Europe died due to extreme heat during the summer of 2022, with figures from the current summer period expected to surge.
Adding more extreme weather events lasting longer is also a contributor. High temperatures indirectly cause deaths due to flooding, wildfires and storms and are often disregarded from statistics of people who have died because of exposure to heat.
What has caused the number of heatwaves in 2023?
The biggest cause is climate change, where carbon emissions impact the core temperature of the earth and its atmosphere. The so-called greenhouse effect means that an insulative layer of gases blanket the planet and stop heat from escaping.
If there were no greenhouse gases, the earth would be around 10°C cooler than it is now – more carbon emissions mean a thicker, denser cloud of pollutants that prevent heat dissipation and mean gases remain ‘stuck’ in the atmosphere while making the world hotter.
When were the hottest temperatures ever recorded?
Interestingly, the highest-ever temperature occurred some years ago, back in July 1913. The heat in Furnace Creek, Death Valley, reached 56.7°C. The current climate crisis isn’t necessarily about the hottest weather ever recorded in one location, though; it is about higher temperatures affecting every country worldwide and sustaining global warming.
Will governments take more proactive action to stop climate change?
The Paris Climate Agreement was a benchmark movement when over 190 UN countries committed to taking collective action to tackle climate change and reduce global emissions. The next Conference of the Parties, or COP, will take place in November and December of this year in Dubai, when further details of progress made and any changes to international strategy will be discussed.