Ecocentric

As Northeast Asia Bakes, Climate Scientists Predict More Extreme Heat Waves on the Horizon

Cities like Shanghai and Seoul are enduring a brutal heat wave. But climate change will make this year's summer feel like nothing in the decades to come

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PETER PARKS / AFP / Getty Images

A record-busting heat wave has wilted Shanghai and other cities in Northeast Asia this summer

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.

(MORE: Antarctica Melted in the Past, and as the Climate Warms, It’s Poised to Melt Again)

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.

The researchers project that those heat waves will increase in frequency and intensity until 2040 even if the international community manages to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions — which, it should be pointed out, we’re not doing. (The carbon emissions we’ve already added to the atmosphere have baked in a certain amount of warming regardless of future climate policy.) But under a low-emissions scenario, the frequency of those nasty heat waves would likely stabilize in the second half of the century as the climate begins to heal itself. But if emissions just keep on rising, the heat waves will intensify — the three-sigma heat waves will cover 85% of the global land area by 2100, while five-sigma events will cover 60% of the globe by the end of the century.

Dim Coumou of the PIK put it this way:

In many regions, the coldest summer months by the end of the century will be hotter than the hottest experienced today — that’s what our calculations show for a scenario of unabated climate change. We would enter a new climatic regime.

It will be bad enough in places like Northeast Asia, which are already prone to hot summers. Imagine heat waves where temperatures top out above 115ºF (46.1ºC) or 120ºF (48.9ºC) in cities like Shanghai or Seoul. But tropical cities such as Mumbai or Jakarta could become hotter than human beings have any experience enduring. The optimist in me wants to think that we’ll find a way to adapt even to those temperatures — after all, thanks to the widespread use of air-conditioning, cities with painfully hot climates even before global warming, like Phoenix or Singapore, have thrived, taking in migrants from colder northern cities. But there has to be a limit — especially when you consider the wilting effect that extreme heat will have on crops. And we’re poised to burn right by it.

MORE: The Costs of Climate Change and Extreme Weather Are Passing the High-Water Mark

11 comments
DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

The only thing feeding denial is the scientific consensus that a crisis ONLY COULD happen so all we have to do is to get scientists to say their own 28 year old crisis is now inevitable like they say comet hits are and the denial machine is dead. If not, we all die. What has to happen now for science to say the planet is in danger eventually instead the unsustainable; "MAYBE". Will it be too late?

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

Climate blame was an exciting research opportunity for lab coat consultants, fuel for fear mongers, fodder for pandering politicians and a lazy copy and paste news editor's dream come true and not one single "journalist" here has ever mentioned that the experts never did agree it would happen, only could happen and it's been 28 years!

The neocons have their right to life crap and libs condemn their own kids to their exaggerated climate blame crisis.

EvanRavitz
EvanRavitz

More AC makes things worse in at least 2 ways: more fossils are burned to make the extra electricity, and ACs radiate MORE heat to the outside than the cold they send inside. People used to open windows at night and close them by day. Hardly anyone knows how to use the most common, "double-hung" windows that open at the bottom AND top. Most people only open them at the bottom, which prevents hot air from exiting at the top. And schools don't teach that or that using lids on pots reduces energy use by up to half. Physics is taught without these everyday ways to vastly reduce energy use.

tamikenn57
tamikenn57

I wonder if those in  the US losing crops last year in the midwest would appreciate the scientists' research predictions as they watch the world turn.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

@tamikenn57Climate blame was an exciting research opportunity for lab coat consultants, fuel for fear mongers, fodder for pandering politicians and a lazy copy and paste news editor's dream come true and not one single "journalist" here has ever mentioned that the experts never did agree it would happen, only could happen and it's been 28 years!

The neocons have their right to life crap and libs condemn their own kids to their exaggerated climate blame crisis.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki


The 28 year old consensus of the experts is that climate change "could be" a crisis not WILL be a crisis so why doesn't science save the planet and end this costly debate by shutting down the denier machine by giving us a real warning for a real crisis? A consensus of "maybe" is unsustainable and is a consensus of nothing. 

VasuMurti
VasuMurti

Veganism Is Direct Action!  
"A diet that can lead to heart attacks, cancer, and numerous other diseases cannot be a natural diet," writes Keith Akers in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983). "A diet that pillages our resources of land, water, forests, and energy cannot be a natural diet. A diet that causes the unnecessary suffering and death of billions of animals each year cannot be a natural diet."

I understand there are conservative Christians who fear vegetarianism...which is kind of like being afraid of nonsmoking, nondrinking, or recycling. 
Ronald J. Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, in his 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, pointed out that 220 million Americans were eating enough food (largely because of the high consumption of grain fed to livestock) to feed over one billion people in the poorer countries.

A pamphlet put out by Compassion Over Killing says raising animals for food is one of the leading causes of both pollution and resource depletion today. According to a recent United Nations report, Livestock's Long Shadow, raising chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals for food causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, trucks and other forms of transportation combined. 
Researchers from the University of Chicago similarly concluded that a vegetarian diet is the most energy efficient, and the average American does more to reduce global warming emissions by not eating animal products than by switching to a hybrid car.

The following points and facts are excerpted from Please Don't Eat the Animals (2007) by the mother-daughter writing team of Jennifer Horsman and Jaime Flowers:

Meat production causes deforestation, which then contributes to global warming. Trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and the destruction of forests around the globe to make room for grazing cattle furthers the greenhouse effect.  The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that the annual rate of tropical deforestation has increased from nine million hectares in 1980 to 16.8 million hectares in 1990, and unfortunately, this destruction has accelerated since then. By 1994, a staggering 200 million hectares of rainforest had been destroyed in South America just for cattle. 

"It seems disingenuous for the intellectual elite of the first world to dwell on the subject of too many babies being born in the second- and third-world nations while virtually ignoring the overpopulation of cattle and the realities of a food chain that robs the poor of sustenance to feed the rich a steady diet of grain-fed meat."

--Jeremy Rifkin, pro-life AND pro-animal author, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, and president of the Greenhouse Crisis Foundation

****
According to the editors of World Watch, July/August 2004: "The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future -- deforestization, topsoil erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease."

The number of animals killed for food in the United States is nearly 75 times larger than the number of animals killed in laboratories, 30 times larger than the number killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times larger than the number of animals killed in animal pounds.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is challenging those who think they can still be "meat-eating environmentalists" to go vegan, if they really care about the planet.
peta2 is now the largest youth movement of any social change organization in the world.

peta2 has 267,000 friends on MySpace and 91,000 Facebook fans.

A few years ago, PETA was the top-ranked charity when a poll asked teenagers what nonprofit group they would most want to work for. PETA won by more than a two to one margin over the second place finisher, The American Red Cross, with more votes than the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity combined. 

Duffman
Duffman

But... oil and coal companies have been saying this is a myth. I think it's more likely they just have broken thermometers.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

@Duffman Not one scientist has ever said it is "inevitable" like they say comet hits are. Science didn't lie, we did.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@DavidNutzuki @Duffman Comet hits are not "inevitable" they are just incredibly likely to happen over the course of millions of years.

Climate change also is not inevitable it just highly likely to happen. And because of man its likely to happen over decades.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

Only a bible thumping fear mongering neocon would condemn their own children to their CO2 deaths on a 28 year old "could be", "might be", "likely".....crisis. What has to happen now for science to say the worst crisis imaginable just WILL happen? You doomers are worse than neocons. You goose step our children to the greenhouse gas ovens of your exaggerated crisis like the humanity haters that you remaining believers are.