May 13, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Foreboding preview: Global spate of weather extremes precedes risky summer

A group of people walk down a flooded street at sunset.

People walk along a flooded street of Eldorado do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil on May 9. Photo: Anselmo Cunha AFP via Getty Images)

A string of unprecedented weather and climate events has struck multiple continents in recent weeks, killing hundreds and displacing many more.

Why it matters: Unrelenting heat in Southeast Asia, flooding in Brazil and Texas and other events provide a foreboding preview of the summer season and match scientific expectations of a warming climate.

  • The extremes that have been occurring this spring are happening in a world that has seen global average temperatures increase by about 1.2°C (2.16°F) compared with preindustrial levels.
  • With most climate models and researchers projecting that warming will exceed 2°C above preindustrial levels, these may be relatively tame previews of Earth's future.

Zoom in: Multiple countries have set national monthly temperature records during May, with all-time records falling as well.

  • Nearly all of Mexico has recently been in the grip of an area of high pressure aloft, also known as a heat dome, that has locked hot and dry weather in place.
  • The country's hottest temperature record for the month of May fell in Gallinas last week, according to meteorologist Etienne Kapikian of Meteo France.
  • In a post on X, Kapikian reported the temperature hit 51.1°C (124°F), setting new Mexican and North American monthly records and reaching just 0.9°C (1.62°F) shy of Mexico's all-time highest temperature for any month.
  • Mexico's heat wave is expected to continue through at least the next week.

What they're saying: "World climatology is being rewritten with this brutal heat wave which has no end in sight," records tracker Maximiliano Herrera said on X.

The big picture: Thailand, China, Myanmar, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan and India have been in the throes of intense heat since March or April.

Stunning stat: The U.S. hasn't been immune, either. La Puerta, Texas, tied the state's record for the hottest temperature in May with a high of 116°F on May 9.

Between the lines: Heat waves are the type of weather event that scientists most confidently attribute to climate change; as global average temperatures increase, the probability of extreme heat increases dramatically.

  • One rapid attribution study found that a heat wave that struck the Sahel and West Africa at the end of March into early April would not have happened without human-caused climate change.
  • This heat wave affected countries including Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
  • Some of these same countries are seeing fierce heat again now.

Threat level: A combination of record-warm oceans, an atmosphere that still reflects the influence of an El Niño in the tropical Pacific Ocean, and long-term warming from the burning of fossil fuels are all likely contributing to recent — and upcoming — extremes.

What's next: Computer model projections for the Northern Hemisphere show widespread warmer-than-average conditions this summer, with a few exceptions.

  • One of the biggest concerns for the summer, in addition to heat waves, is an extremely active Atlantic hurricane season, one that is perhaps on par with the busiest seasons on record.
  • This would be due to a combination of record-warm Atlantic Ocean waters and a developing La Niña in the tropical equatorial Pacific Ocean.
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