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NASA computer model image of temperature departures from average on June 27 during the Pacific Northwest heat wave. (NASA Earth Observatory)

The recent deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, during which all-time temperature records were shattered by several degrees, is a prologue to what is coming across much of the U.S., Europe and Asia, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The study shows that the rate of climate change is an under-appreciated driver of extreme heat, and that today's quickening pace of warming virtually guarantees more extreme temperature records in coming decades.

  • The study, published Monday in Nature Climate Change, also finds that looking to past extreme temperatures when making infrastructure decisions offers a poor guide to the future given how quickly human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are transforming the likelihood of unprecedented heat extremes.

Details: The study shows that the rate of warming, rather than the absolute amount of warming compared to preindustrial levels, is an important determining factor in how likely it is that heat waves will greatly exceed temperatures previously observed in a particular location.

What they did: Using computer models and records of past weather events, Erich Fischer and his colleagues at ETH Zurich examined how the chances for record-shattering heat waves have been shifting and will continue to change as global warming continues.

  • They focused on the occurrence of week-long, record-shattering heat waves, such as the one that recently occurred in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and examined how these probabilities would change depending on the rate and amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

By the numbers: During the Pacific Northwest's deadly heat wave, Seattle hit an all-time high of 108°F, while Portland shattered its old record to reach 116°F. The previous record in Portland was just 107°F, whereas Seattle had only seen the mercury rise to 103°F prior to this event.

  • Typically, all-time temperature records are exceeded by fractions of a degree.
  • The study found that under a high emissions scenario, record-shattering heat extremes (at least three standard deviations from average) are two to seven times more likely during the 2021–2050 period, and three to 21 times more likely during the 2051–2080 period.
  • The greatest frequency of these heat extremes would occur during periods of faster warming immediately following years of relatively flat temperature growth.
  • The planet is currently warming at a rate of about 0.18°C, or 0.32°F per decade, according to NOAA. This is considerably faster than the warming rate during the previous 40 years, which puts us at greater risk of unprecedented heat.

What they're saying: "The main message is that we need to prepare for more record heat events in the coming decades that shatter previous record temperatures by large margins," Fischer told Axios via email.

  • "Because the probability of record-shattering events is directly related to the speed of warming, this is yet another piece of the puzzle that demonstrates that in order to reduce the risk of such record-shattering heat, greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced very rapidly," Fischer said.

Outside experts who were not part of the new study told Axios the research helps explain what's being seen in the real world.

  • "All I can say is, wow, what a remarkably prescient paper," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, noting that it was completed and submitted for publication prior to the heat waves this summer.
  • "The notion that events we assumed were vanishingly rare or impossible, due to our relatively limited historical record, are probably not nearly so rare in the real world," Swain added, noting that in the case of the Pacific Northwest heat event, unusual but not unheard of weather patterns were able to produce astonishing temperature records.
  • "We don't need to invoke some kind of exotic new mechanism for so-called 'black swan' heat waves," he said. "All it takes is to get unlucky with a confluence of the same ingredients that produced lesser historical heat waves."
  • Friederike Otto, who helps lead the global effort to analyze climate change's role in producing extreme weather events, said the paper shows that even very rare events like the Pacific Northwest heat wave are "increasing rapidly in likelihood with still increasing warming rates."
  • On the other hand, Michael Mann of Penn State University told Axios that model shortcomings regarding the physics of extreme events and atmospheric circulation means that the new study's projections are quite uncertain.

What's next: Even if world leaders decide to slash greenhouse gas emissions in the near term to avoid potentially devastating amounts of global warming, unprecedented heat extremes will still grow more common and damaging during the next several decades due to the lag time that the planet's climate has built into it.

Go deeper: In summer of apocalyptic weather, concerns emerge over climate science blind spot

Go deeper

Oct 12, 2021 - Science

Weather and climate disasters have cost the U.S. over $100 billion in 2021

Piles of debris is all that's left of a restaurant after heavy rain from remnants of Hurricane Ida came through in Manville, New Jersey, on Sept. 7. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Weather and climate disasters in 2021 have killed 538 people in the U.S. and cost over $100 billion, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Why it matters: The first nine months of 2021 saw the largest number of billion-dollar disasters in a calendar year so far, with 2021 on pace for second behind 2020, per the report.

Definition of success at UN Climate Summit is in flux

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The UN Climate Summit in Glasgow is less than 20 days away, and diplomats have entered a crucial period when expectations are raised or lowered to guard against any blowback that might come from a particular outcome.

Driving the news: Officials in the U.S. and abroad are sending clear signals that the odds that COP26 will meet some of its most important goals are diminishing, for a variety of reasons both macro and micro in scale.

Facing existential threat from climate change, Pacific Islanders urge world to listen

Climate organizer Moñeka De Oro (left), Guam Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio and Micronesia Climate Change Alliance. Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Courtesy of MCCA and the University of Guam Center for Island Sustainability

Decades after Pacific Islanders first raised the alarm, the rest of the world is finally catching up: The climate crisis is here, and it's accelerating.

Why it matters: Pacific Islanders, whose nations face an existential threat from climate change, were a major force behind the Paris Agreement. Heading into November's UN climate summit, they are calling for greater urgency in meeting the goals of the accord, and more direct action from world leaders — especially President Biden.