Towards the end of June 2021, temperature records were broken by several degrees Celsius in several cities in the Pacific Northwest areas of the US and Canada, leading to spikes in sudden deaths and sharp increases in emergency calls and hospital visits for heat-related illnesses. Here we present a multi-model, multi-method attribution analysis to investigate the extent to which human-induced climate change has influenced the probability and intensity of extreme heat waves in this region. Based on observations, modelling and a classical statistical approach, the occurrence of a heat wave defined as the maximum daily temperature (TXx) observed in the area 45-52N, 119-123W, was found to be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. The observed temperatures were so extreme that they lay far outside the range of historical temperature observations. This makes it hard to state with confidence how rare the event was. Using a statistical analysis that assumes that the heat wave is part of the same distribution as previous heat waves in this region led to a first-order estimation of the event frequency of the order of once in 1000 years under current climate conditions. Using this assumption and combining the results from the analysis of climate models and weather observations, we found that such a heat wave event would be at least 150 times less common without human-induced climate change. Also, this heat wave was about 2 C hotter than a 1-in-1000-year heat wave would have been in 1850-1900, when global mean temperatures were 1.2 C cooler than today. Looking into the future, in a world with 2 C of global warming (0.8 C warmer than today), a 1000-year event would be another degree hotter. Our results provide a strong warning: our rapidly warming climate is bringing us into uncharted territory with significant consequences for health, well-being and livelihoods. Adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed to prepare societies for a very different future.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- General Earth and Planetary Sciences