Global heatwave explained: Why the world is burning
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Global heatwave explained: Why the world is burning

THE planet is in the grip of a global heatwave and it’s fair to say much of us are just not coping with the soaring temperatures and baking sunshine.

This summer has been a record setter for much of the northern hemisphere and it’s showing little sign of letting up.

While much of the UK is taking the opportunity to top up their tans – despite health warnings from the government – the dangerous reality of this unprecedented heatwave is hitting hard in countries across the planet.

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In Japan, where temperatures reached into the 40s, over 80 people have died from the heat since the beginning of July and over 35,000 have been hospitalised, according to a statement from the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

Tragedy struck mainland Greece when wildfires forced people into the sea where they perished. In total, over 79 people lost their lives in the blazes in coastal regions around Athens making it the deadliest fire outbreak this century in the world.

As far north as the Arctic circle is suffering. In Finland’s northernmost Lapland province – which calls itself the “official home” of Santa Claus – fires have ravaged woods and grassland close to the border with Russia.

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Sweden’s emergency services said Tuesday there are 21 active wildfires across the country. Some 25,000 hectares of land has already gone up in smoke or continues to burn.

In North America, Canada has set records with Toronto having already experienced 18 days with temperatures exceeding 30C, compared to just nine such days throughout all of last summer.

But what’s going on? Is it climate change or just a freak hot summer? Is this the new normal?

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Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike splashes water on the ground during a water sprinkling event called Uchimizu which is meant to cool down the area, in Tokyo on July 23, 2018. Japanese officials issued new warnings as a deadly heatwave blankets the country. Tokyo, July 23, 2018. Source: Behrouz Mehri/AFP

Heatwave explained

It’s hard to say definitively exactly what is causing this phenomenon. It’s even harder to attribute it to one element alone. Weather is complicated and this heatwave is no different.

Many scientists point to the Jetstream – a core of strong winds around 8 to 11 kilometres above the Earth’s surface that helps develop and steer weather around the globe. This year has seen more extreme fluctuations according to Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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“We are seeing some extreme jet-stream behaviour, where the jet stream is contorting into these extreme loops both sharply towards the poles with ridges of high pressure and dips to the equator with troughs of low pressure,’’ Masters told Bloomberg.

“The extreme configuration is getting stuck in place which means that places are getting long periods of extreme weather.’’

Add to this rising sea temperatures and climate change in the warming of the atmosphere and you have yourself a perfect storm – pun intended.

While it seems natural to point to climate change as the driving factor behind the last months weather, it’s far from the only actor. It is almost impossible to determine the influence of climate change while going through unusual weather occurrences, often only being able to see the impact sometimes decades down the line.

But one way in which heatwaves differ from other weather phenomenon, such as flooding, is that there’s far more certainty of the effects of global warming and climate change.

“Heat waves are easy,” Michael Wehner, a senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Slate. “For pretty much everywhere in the world … climate change has increased the severity of heat waves.”

Scientists are pretty much in agreement on this. Climate change has made heatwaves more likely.

As global carbon emissions continue to rise and predictions suggest the world will be unable to hold global temperature rises this century to below 2C above pre-industrial levels, widespread heatwaves are very likely to get worse and become more frequent.

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