Updated: Jul 21, 2020
In late June, the northeastern Siberian town of Verkhoyansk set a record on June 20 for 100.4 degrees (38 Celsius), the northernmost 100-degree temperature ever recorded. This temperature was the first of many heat waves across the world.
This temperature has yet to be verified, but it would be the highest on record in the Arctic. On Sunday, the temperature was 95.3 degrees (35.2 Celsius), showing that the Saturday measure was not an anomaly. More frightening, however, is that the average Verkhoyansk June temperature is 68 degrees (20 Celsius).
Scientists recognize that we will continue to see these record temperatures as climate change progresses over the next century. This temperature is just a preview of what is yet to come for the struggling Arctic. Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, says:
“For a long time, we’ve been saying we’re going to get more extremes like strong heat waves. It’s a little like the projections are coming true, and sooner than we might have thought.”
Hot temperatures are not unheard of in the Arctic because the Arctic gets 24 hours of sunlight around this time of year, the summer solstice. According to Walt Meier, a climate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, 80 to 90-degree weather is not too strange. However, he explains, climate change is "loading the dice" towards extreme heat, such as in late June.
June's temperatures were the result of multiple factors combined. Air temperatures in the region were 11ºF (6ºC) above the 1979–2019 average since December; in May, it was 18ºF (10ºC) higher than the average of 33.8ºF (1ºC). These temperatures should only occur once every hundred years, but human-induced climate change is messing up the cycle. These high temperatures melted the snow a month earlier than it should have. Snow is crucial in keeping the Arctic cool, as it reflects over 99 percent of incoming solar radiation. Instead, dirt and plants soaked up the heat, warming the environment.
The Arctic is warming at twice the rate as the global average; the high Arctic has increased in temperature by 3.6 to 5.4ºF (2 to 3ºC). In the last decade alone, about 0.75ºC of warming has occurred. These higher temperatures will exacerbate any heat waves that hit the region. These warming temperatures in the Arctic have been happening over the last decade: in 2012, 97% of the Greenland ice sheet essentially turned to slush; in 2016, High Arctic Svalbard, Norway got so warm that it rained instead of snowed during part of the winter; in the summer of 2019, the edges of the Greenland ice sheets experienced three months more of melting weather.
In addition to the melting ice, the most dangerous aspect of Arctic warming is melting permafrost. Permafrost soil holds more carbon dioxide than all of the world's rainforests combined. According to Susan Natali, Arctic program director at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, carbon emissions from permafrost thaw will take up "25 to 40% of our remaining fossil fuel emissions budget." This means that it will be a lot harder to curb climate change. This permafrost thaw is part of the cycle of climate change that makes it so dangerous. Permafrost thaw can occur in multiple different ways. There can be a gradual thaw, where a slow increase in temperature melts the permafrost from the top up. Abrupt thaw occurs when there is a sudden increase in temperature (such as right now). One extremely hot summer (as is happening now) can lead to rapid thawing; the loss of permafrost is measured in tens of meters instead of mere centimeters. This is the true danger of heat waves, particularly in the polar regions.
"Zombie fires" are another impact of this heat wave. While they sound made-up, zombie fires are fires that start underground, burning up all of the organic matter below ground, and then in the spring/summer, they come to the surface. In addition, normal wildfires are a big concern as the heat waves removes natural barriers and dries up vegetation. Wildfires can also contribute to thawing permafrost, again resulting in the cyclical effect of climate change.
This heat wave was made 600 times more likely due to climate change, according a rapid attribution study published Wednesday by international researchers. They said that this event would be "almost impossible" in a climate unaffected by anthropogenic (human-caused) warming.
"This research is further evidence of the extreme temperatures we can expect to see more frequently around the world in a warming global climate. Importantly, an increasing frequency of these extreme heat events can be moderated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions,"
said Andrew Ciavarella, lead author of the research and senior detection and attribution scientist at the Met Office in a statement. These effects will become frequent in the latter half of the century if we do not curb climate change.
The Rest of the World
The rest of the world is facing strong heat waves as well. An intense heat wave is across the American South and Southwest, with heat advisories issued for at least eleven states from Southern California to Florida. What makes this heat wave stand out from the others is that the record-breaking temperatures are covering much of the country, instead of just anomalies popping up.
For instance, in New Orleans, they saw 40 consecutive hours of triple-digit temperatures, with values topping 110 degrees for 10 hours. They had six consecutive days with highs above 95 degrees.
Similarly, Miami's temperatures either tied or broke records every day from July 5 to 10, hitting 98 degrees July 9, as well as the week before. Miami has only seen temperatures of 98 degrees or greater a total of 15 days since 1895. Five have occurred in the past five summers.
Finally, Death Valley broke a three-year record on Sunday (July 12), at 128 degrees. There are temperatures topping 100 degrees all over the South and Southwest
Effects of Heat on People
Heat, by some calculations, is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. Heat illness is more likely to occur when people are unable to cool down at night, which happens when the temperature doesn't drop to below 80 degrees and there is no air conditioner. The 1995 Chicago heat wave killed about 750 people and caused cities worldwide to reassess their heat plans.
Borunda, Alejandra. “What a 100-Degree Day in Siberia Really Means.” What a 100-degree day in Siberia, above the Arctic Circle, really means. National Geographic Partners, LLC, June 23, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/06/what-100-degree-day-siberia-means-climate-change/.
Wernick, Adam. “A Heat Wave in Siberia Signals Dangerous Arctic Warming,” July 15, 2020. https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-07-15/heat-wave-siberia-signals-dangerous-arctic-warming.
Woodyatt, Amy. “Siberian Heatwave Made 600 Times More Likely by Climate Change, Experts Find.” CNN News. Cable News Network, Inc. a WarnerMedia Company, July 16, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/16/world/siberia-heatwave-climate-change-intl-scli-scn/index.html.
Cappucci, Matthew, and Andrew Freedman. “Excessive Heat Is Scorching the South and Southwest, Where Coronavirus Cases Are Surging,” July 13, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/07/13/heat-wave-south-coronavirus/.
Berardelli, Jeff. “Death Valley Sets Record for Planet's Hottest Temperature in Years - and the Heat Wave Is Forecast to Spread.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, July 14, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/death-valley-hottest-temperature-record-heat-wave/?ftag=CNM-00-10aac3a.