The Places on Earth Most at Risk for Record Heat Waves

By now, most people seem aware that global warming is happening and that human emissions are largely to blame for climate change, including the more frequent and extreme weather events. One recent study looked at a specific aspect of global warming – record-breaking heat waves. The study found that nearly 460 million people could be particularly vulnerable to these heat waves, largely because they have experienced far fewer such events.

“Regions which have, so far, not experienced a particularly extreme event may be less prepared for the consequences of such an event,” wrote U.K. climate scientists in the “The most at-risk regions in the world for high-impact heatwaves” article published in Nature Communication in April. The study found that 31% of the regions from 1959 to 2021 had experienced extreme high temperatures that defied current statistical weather models.

One of these areas was the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canada in the summer of 2021, when temperatures shot past 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Oregon and Washington, while in British Columbia a heat wave sent temperatures to a broiling 121 degrees, the highest ever registered in Canada. (See, this city emits the most carbon dioxide in the world.)

But while many places in the world have experienced similar statistically improbable spikes in temperature, other regions have yet to shatter their long-standing records. Some of these regions have maximum temperature records that have not been broken in the lifetimes of most people living in them today.

To identify the most at-risk region in the world for high-impact heat waves, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the eight regions where the current records have the lowest “return period of record event,” a measure of the likelihood a record-breaking event will occur, from the study. The analysis, by Thompson, V., Mitchell, D., Hegerl, G.C. et al, reviewed 136 regions. All temperatures mentioned are in Fahrenheit unless otherwise noted.

In these regions, a record-breaking event is not only more likely but also likely to have greater impacts due to a lack of preparedness. Countries tend to prepare for the level of the greatest event they have experienced within collective memory. 

Sparsely-populated eastern Russia, for example, has a record maximum average temperature of 90 degrees F that has held for 71 years. But in June 2020, the Russian town of Verkhoyansk in the Arctic Circle recorded a 100-degree heat wave, the same month that Moscow, far to the west, shattered its 120-year record when summer temperatures reached 90 degrees.

The researchers also identified three regions that include developing countries such as Afghanistan, which is highly unprepared to protect its rapidly growing population from global warming and extreme events. Papua New Guinea and Central America – including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – are the other two regions for high-risk heat waves and lack of preparedness largely because of their additional social and economic struggles. (These are the worst cities to live in as climate change gets worse.)

Other regions include more developed countries, such as northwestern Australia and Central Europe that are already experiencing recent high temperatures that are approaching records that have been held for more than 90 years.  

Here are the world’s most at-risk regions for extreme heat waves.

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