Thought Piece: The Global Heatwave and the Boiling Frog

Thought Piece: The Global Heatwave and the Boiling Frog

The Global Heatwave and the Boiling Frog

Climate change is one of the most significant challenges today, and according to climate scientists, this summer’s abnormal weather is just the beginning of what is predicted to be in store for us in coming years.


The summer of 2018 was noteworthy for the all-time heat records smashed around the world, from California to Sweden and Japan. The high temperatures were sign of a warming world, scientists have said, with human-caused global warming increasing the frequency of heat waves as well as their severity and duration and other extreme weather events. The debate is now moving towards how we can deal with the impacts of future climate change, and we have to ask ourselves if we reacting to the rising temperature, and its effects with enough urgency.


The boiling frog is a fable, the premise of which is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is placed in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death without trying to save itself.  How we go forward to deal with this new reality is undecided.  Perhaps the story of the boiling frog is for us all to consider; do we sit in the increasing temperatures in the hope that our resources will sustain us in the future?


First, perhaps we need to ask why has it been so hot?  In Europe, the heatwave was caused by the stalling of the jet stream wind, which usually funnels cool Atlantic weather over the continent. This left hot, dry air in place for the summer months for far longer than usual. The stalling of the northern hemisphere jet stream is linked to global warming, and the rapid heating of the Arctic and the resulting loss of sea ice.


The jet stream impact

The jet stream, the core of strong winds some five to seven miles above the Earth’s surface blows west to east and moves weather around the globe. Wind speeds can exceed 200 mph, but this isn’t felt at ground level. The jet stream’s strength and position have a significant influence on the weather we experience at the surface. What we experienced over the summer was a very weak flow in combination with a high-pressure system over central Europe. The high-pressure system blocked weather systems from the Atlantic, pushing them northward rather than allowing them to move eastwards towards Europe.


Sea temperatures effects

We could be also be looking forward to beautiful autumn thanks to a continuing horseshoe-shaped pattern of sea temperatures stretching across the Atlantic. The current mild Autumn is certainly testament to that. Throughout the summer the tropical Atlantic seas that extend from the Caribbean to Africa have been colder than usual, and the unusually cooler waters have reached up round to the southern tip of Greenland, in a pattern that looks like a horseshoe lying on its side. In the middle of that horseshoe has sat a large of area unusually warm seas in the mid-Atlantic. This Atlantic sea temperature pattern is a useful way to forecast hot summers as early as springtime, long before the heat arrives.


There are some similarities between the heatwave of 1976 and the sea conditions in the Atlantic back then were very similar to what we see now. In both years, the same pattern formed in which there is cold water near Greenland, warm water further south and then more cool water closer to the British Isles. But importantly what has changed since 1976 is that the Earth’s average temperature has risen.


Climate change

Global temperatures are increasing due to climate change. The global rise in temperatures means the probability that an extreme heatwave will occur is also growing. These fundamental changes to the Earth’s surface are likely to have an impact on the atmospheric circulation system and hence the weather we experience.


Serious climate change is “unfolding before our eyes”, said Prof Rowan Sutton, director of climate research at the University of Reading. “No one should be in the slightest surprised that we see very serious heatwaves and associated impacts in many parts of the world.”  The wide geographical spread of the heatwave, right across four continents, points to global warming as the culprit, said Prof Peter Stott, a science fellow at the UK’s Met Office: “That pattern is something we wouldn’t see without climate change.”


The heatwave experienced across northern Europe and the US has saw wild fire in the Arctic Circle, Sweden suffered its strongest heatwave in almost 260 years and record temperatures with prolonged heat across the UK and the European continent. In the south, fierce blazes devastated parts of Greece, with scores of people killed.


But the extreme weather has struck across the globe.  Severe floods killed more than 200 people in Japan in early July, with the nation then hit by a heatwave described as a natural disaster that peaked at 41.1C and left 23,000 people in the hospital. In the US, extreme heat in the fed wildfires, while flooding is affected the east coast. Temperature records have been set in Taiwan, with a temperature of 40.3C in Tianxiang, and in Ouargla in Algeria’s Sahara desert, which reported a maximum temperature of 51.3C, the highest temperature ever reliably recorded in Africa.


Global Water Concerns

More than five billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 caused by a combination of climate change, increased demand and wasteful inefficiencies.  “The ecosystems on which life itself is based – our food security, energy sustainability, public health, jobs, cities – are all at risk because of how water is managed today,” according to the World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim.


Cities across the world are already suffering from water shortages. There has been a recent focus in Cape Town and water scarcity covers the drought belts encompassing Mexico and the southwestern corner of the USA, western South America, southern Europe, China, and Australia.  Rainfall is forecast to decline in these regions – which means there is less water to go around rising populations.


Water in the UK

After the heat of summer, the weather forecasts indicated that there would be a high likelihood of autumn with bright, dry conditions in many areas and the summer has been recorded as one of the hottest ever. The rising temperatures are having an effect on farmers and their livelihoods, and the falling levels of the UK’s reservoirs, lakes and rivers.  This year saw the driest June on record with the UK hit by scorching temperatures and almost no rainfall.


Much of England and Wales could face severe water shortages next year unless there is significant rainfall over the winter months, the Environment Agency warned. The recent wet weather has done little to replenish water levels in rivers and reservoirs already low after one of the driest periods on record.  Six water companies have already initiated drought management plans to ensure supplies to customers remain unaffected. Southern Water are even considering building a desalinisation plant to cope with demand.


The Environment Agency says the situation will not improve unless there is 120% of the average rainfall over the winter.  Many farmers are culling animals earlier than they would normally, following a bad grass growing season due to the harsh weather in March, which delayed the start of free grazing, followed by the heatwave. If farmers go into winter short of feed and relying on expensive feed, the dry weather has pushed up the cost of cattle feed in Ireland by 50%, it will push up prices and could result in a lower overall production of UK meat and milk.  The hot and dry spell  also played havoc with crops affecting yields of asparagus, cauliflower, and salad crops that may require increase imports from Europe.


What’s Next?

Climate change and increasing water scarcity is a reality right now, with most experts agreeing that we will have to make radical changes in our behaviour. We have to live with both and plan for them, acknowledging that water is not an unlimited resource that can be taken for granted and that we, like the frogs, will have to take evasive action before it’s too late.

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