Global temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, and that means more extreme heat waves more of the time. To better prepare for what lies ahead, researchers from across the UK have identified the countries most at risk from heat wave harm.
This isn't just countries where heat waves are expected to be likely. The new research also takes into account factors such as socioeconomics, population growth, the stability of energy networks, and the availability of healthcare services.
Regions such as Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Central America are most at risk from the damaging effects of heat waves, the study concludes. Beijing and Central Europe are vulnerable too, with their large populations putting relatively large numbers of people at risk.
The team behind the research wants to see more done to prepare for the potentially devastating heat waves to come. Part of the problem is we're not sure what's coming – what lies in the future is likely to be worse than what we've seen up until this point.
"Often, regions are only prepared for events as extreme as they have already experienced, with planning initiated by past disasters," write the researchers in their published paper.
"Policymakers and governments need to prepare for events beyond current records – particularly with trends caused by anthropogenic climate change enhancing the probability of extremes."
The researchers used the latest climate models and global population data to make their assessments, as well as a method for determining the chances of extreme climate events repeating known as extreme value statistics.
Statistically implausible heat waves – extreme enough not to be predicted by models – have happened in 31 percent of the 136 regions covered by the study over the last 60 years or so, the researchers say. That's even more reason for us to be over-preparing for events that seem almost inconceivable right now.
"As heat waves are occurring more often we need to be better prepared," says climate scientist Vikki Thompson from the University of Bristol in the UK.
"We identify regions that may have been lucky so far – some of these regions have rapidly growing populations, some are developing nations, some are already very hot. We need to ask if the heat action plans for these areas are sufficient."
Not only can enduring high temperatures kill people directly, they make daily life and work much more difficult, they can be devastating in terms of agriculture and farming development, and they have knock-on effects such as an increased risk of wildfires.
There is some good news: putting preparations in place really does reduce the number of deaths. These preparations can involve cooling places in urban environments, a shift or reduction in working hours.
Developing countries are the least likely to have comprehensive heat plans in place, according to the researchers. The hope is that while efforts to curb global warming continue, steps can be taken to limit the harm of the extreme weather events that are now heading our way.
"Being prepared saves lives," says atmospheric scientist Dann Mitchell, from the University of Bristol. "We have seen some of the most unexpected heat waves around the world lead to heat-related deaths in the tens of thousands."
"In this study, we show that such record smashing events could occur anywhere. Governments around the world need to be prepared."
The research has been published in Nature Communications.