July 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


Pimms anyone? Ice cream? BBQ? A cool, pub-garden pint?

I hope you’re enjoying the sunshine, but cross your fingers that this isn’t the start of another season of death.  Because according to a study in this week’s Science journal, the European summer of 2010 was the most ferocious on record, and this could be the century of a mega heatwave.

In Russia last year, hot weather killed 55,000 people, destroyed a quarter of all crops, sparked raging wildfires that incinerated over 1 million hectares of forest and cost the country $15 billion dollars – equivalent to 1% of GDP.  Daytime temperatures in Moscow topped 38°C and nights in Kiev were a sticky 25°C.  In Finland, average temperatures reached 26°C – five degrees above normal.

A team of European scientists compared weather data from 2010 and 2003 – when 70,000 people lost their lives in heat-related deaths – with information dating back to 1500.  They discovered that the recent killer summers were hotter than any other and that the last decade was the warmest in 510 years.

The heatwave of 2010 was on average 0.2°C toastier than 2003, and record temperatures were recorded over a much wider area.  The scientists blamed an immovable high pressure weather system, low rainfall and an early spring thaw – all spawned by climate restlessness due to greenhouse gas emissions.

So can we expect more mega heatwaves?  To find out, the team used high-resolution climate models to predict future summers.  Their prognosis isn’t good.  If greenhouse gas emissions continue as they are, by the middle of the century Europe will be seeing 2003-like conditions every 10-15 years.   And by the century’s close, 2010-like summers could be coming every other year.