‘The deadliest extreme weather event in Europe’: Extreme heat waves fueled by climate change could fundamentally change the way we live

June 17, 2022, 4:51 PM UTC

Temperatures are rising across the globe and breaking records everywhere.

A third of the U.S. was under excessive heat warnings this week as domes of high pressure that trap hot air—otherwise known as heat domes—have led to temperatures hitting 100°F across the South and Southwest regions of the U.S.

Things aren’t much better across the Atlantic. Scientists say that because of climate change, Madrid, Paris, Rome, and London are all preparing for their own heat domes. France, which just recorded its hottest May ever, observed its earliest 40°C (104°F) in recorded history in June.

“Climate change is a real game-changer when it comes to heat waves. They have increased in frequency, intensity and duration across the world because of our burning of fossil fuels,” Friederike Otto, climatologist, and professor at the University of Oxford’s global climate science program told Fortune.

She notes many studies have shown that heat waves have increased in frequency by a factor of 100 or more from human-caused climate change, grimly noting that “heatwaves are also by a very large margin the deadliest extreme weather events in Europe.”

Heatwaves are increasing in frequency and deadliness across Europe, America, Africa, and Asia as a direct result of human-made climate change. And as heat waves become the norm for summer, it could transform everything from our health to our pocketbooks. 

How it affects our bodies

While there have been heatwaves in the past, scientists say that if global warming isn’t curbed, the current record-breaking heat waves will become a summertime norm. 

“Heatwaves are not a new phenomenon but the fingerprints of climate change are all over these new heat records” Scott Duncan a meteorologist based in Scotland told Fortune

Scientists have been trying for years to drill down on the ways living in a hotter world can destroy our bodies.

“We don’t know what the long-term consequences of getting up every day, working for three hours in nearly deadly heat, sweating like crazy, and then going back home are,” Matthew Huber, a climate scientist at Purdue University, recently told the New York Times.

Excessive heat has been correlated with cardiovascular and kidney failure, high blood pressure, asthma, and multiple sclerosis. It has been found to damage our organs and cells, and our DNA. Extreme heat also impairs our motor functions, disrupts sleep, and is linked to greater crime, anxiety, depression, and suicide.

In light of the recent heat waves, governments around the world have started to cancel events and set new policies to keep people safe. Concerts and large public gatherings have been called off in Bordeaux, France. School districts across the U.S. have canceled schools or switched to half days to avoid the hot hours. 

The heat is also affecting livestock. An estimated 2,000 cows died in Kansas on Wednesday  sweltering in the heat.  

But even though heat is getting more extreme, warning people about the dangerous weather is difficult.  

“It is hard to get people to react the appropriate way when you’re talking about something that’s unprecedented in their lifetime or their grandparent’s lifetime,” Duncan tells Fortune.

How it affects our economics

Extreme heat waves are also adding pressure to already-volatile commodity markets, and impacting the world’s food and fuel supplies. 

Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent disruption in wheat and gas markets, has helped push global inflation to the highest levels seen in decades. 

Heat waves in Europe have pushed demand for electricity because of air conditioners, but rices for that energy in France and Germany are already at record highs, Bloomberg reports.  That means that people might have to choose between overheating and paying their bills. 

There’s also a risk that grain harvests from France, Spain, and Portugal might also be curbed even more due to the heat, according to Paris-based agriculture analyst Agritel

The grain market is already playing catch up from the war in Ukraine, which has left millions of tons of grain stuck in ports or destroyed by Russian forces, and the world is counting on grain farmers in Europe to produce a sizeable output to feed Europe. 

There is also fear of a repeat of what happened in India, which has banned exports of wheat from its own country after heat waves in the north wiped out those crops.

And on top of global economic fears, small businesses are also finding the heat waves difficult to manage—especially as they look to recoup the losses from the pandemic.

“June is one of the best months for us, so a heat wave right now is no good for business,” the manager of Terraza Colon cafe in Madrid, Daniel Benito told Bloomberg. “It’s just impossible to plan and run a business with such extreme weather,” he said.

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