Every year could bring a heatwave if climate change continues

A market stall holder shields herself from the sun in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov 28, 2015.
A market stall holder shields herself from the sun in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov 28, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

BARCELONA (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Without reductions in planet-warming emissions, blistering heatwaves of the strength that now typically occur once every 20 years could happen annually on 60 per cent of the Earth's land areas by 2075, scientists have warned.

And intense heatwaves - defined as three exceptionally hot days in a row - will become far more extreme if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, said a new study published in the journal Climatic Change.

The researchers said a worsening of extreme heat could have potentially deadly effects.

"Imagine the hottest day that you can remember and instead of 42 deg C, it's now 45 deg C. That's going to have a dangerous impact on the poor, the old and the very young, who are typically the ones dying in heat waves," said Michael Wehner of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the United States.

By 2050, heatwaves that happen on average once in 20 years would be at least 3 deg C hotter on 60 per cent of the Earth's land areas than now. In 10 per cent of the world, they would be at least 5 deg C hotter, the researchers said.

In December, around 195 countries agreed a new UN deal to try to restrain the rise in global average temperatures to "well below" 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels. But the emissions cuts they have pledged so far are not enough to meet that goal.

The new research - part of a larger project to quantify how emission reductions could affect health, agriculture, hurricanes, sea level rise and drought - found that stringent mitigation measures could reduce heatwaves significantly.

"The study shows that aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will translate into sizable benefits, starting in the middle of the century, for both the number and intensity of extreme heat events," said Claudia Tebaldi of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, where the project is based.

"Even though heatwaves are on the rise, we still have time to avoid a large portion of the impacts," she added.

The study said that, even with strong action to curb climate change, nearly a fifth of global land areas would still suffer intense heatwaves yearly in 2075.