After a summer of record-breaking heat across Europe, Greek officials are considering naming heat waves like hurricanes or tropical storms.
This August, Greece had its most intense heat wave in about 30 years, contributing to wildfires which have destroyed forest land and displaced thousands of people on the island of Evia and in the southern part of the country. In 2021, Large wildfires have burned more than 107,000 hectares of land in Greece compared to an annual average of 21,207 hectares from 2008 to 2020. The crisis led Greece to create a climate change ministry.
Extreme heat has affected all corners of the world in recent decades. The Pacific Northwest and North Africa, for example, have also seen record breaking temperatures this summer, contributing to wildfires and severe ecological damage. Even the Arctic Circle has experienced more intense heat and wildfires.
As heat waves are expected to increase in frequency and intensity, they pose a severe public health threat. According to information published by the World Health Organization (WHO), between 1998 and 2017, approximately 166,000 people died due to heat waves, and climate change in recent years has exposed millions more people to extreme heat.
Why name heat waves: advantages and disadvantages
The media is calling the heat wave formed from an anticyclone affecting North Africa and southern Europe ‘Lucifer,’ but it’s not yet standard to name heat waves.
Despite heat waves causing more deaths than any other threat associated with climate change, news outlets do not publicize them as much as storms like hurricanes. Experts hope that giving names to heat waves will help inform the public of the risks associated with them.
As reported in The New York Times, Eleni Myrivili, Athens’s chief heat officer, stated that naming heat waves could also help policymakers.
“When it comes to heat waves, ignorance is the main cause of tragedies,” Lonne said. “If they were given the same treatment as storms, people would prepare for them and minimize the possibility of tragedies occurring.”
Ross Spark, editor-in-chief at The Solar Advantage, said that assigning names “also provides a way to share updates about the lethality of the heat wave.”
One concern with naming heat waves is that naming too many climate hazards could create a “boy that cried wolf” effect. Spark, who has also worked with research organizations studying climate change, mentioned that “there may not be anyone in power who has authority over all of the different regions affected by a single weather event. This means that if one region doesn’t approve of the name given another region may reject it too, and this can lead to confusion.”
The U.S. started naming storms in the 1950s, finding that using short names for hurricanes facilitated communications and made it easier to keep track of storms occurring simultaneously. However, while naming storms is a seemingly simple process, even this has grown more difficult in recent years.
For Atlantic storms, one list of 21 names is used each year, and there are six total. The names of especially severe storms are retired, meaning the National Hurricane Center is running out of names. Last year — for the second time — the center needed to use Greek letters to identify storms.
Underlying biases could also limit the efficacy of naming. A 2014 study found that gendered naming of storms may affect how people respond to them, with people perceiving feminine-named storms as less dangerous. Even with storms, naming is a flawed method.
Who is most at risk from extreme heat?
While experts do not necessarily agree on the exact process, or efficacy, of naming heat waves, many agree that raising more awareness of how extreme heat can affect human health is critical.
Extreme heat impacts some places and communities more than others. For instance, heat waves can be dangerous in typically cooler or more temperate regions since many buildings there may not have air-conditioning.
Heat waves are often more severe in urban areas with less vegetation where pavement and buildings trap more heat. Heat waves also especially impact the elderly and houseless people living outdoors. With a pandemic that has left many financially vulnerable and eviction moratoriums and rent freezes ending in multiple countries, heat waves may threaten more people than ever.
Spark also noted that heat waves pose a particular risk to people who work outdoors. This summer, at least two people working outside died likely in part due heat exposure in the Pacific Northwest. The threat has led to greater attention from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and advocacy for more protection for outdoors workers in the U.S.
However, some of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to extreme heat are difficult to reach with critical information, which could further negate the purpose of naming heat waves.
While naming may not help high risk communities directly, it could still encourage others to reach out to them. Additionally, Spark suggested that the greater empathy and awareness generated by naming heat waves “would lead to more donations for relief efforts.”
As the discussion on naming heat waves continues, rising temperatures will continue to threaten humans and ecosystems globally. Lonne argued that in order to save lives in the future, “naming heat waves should not be seen as ‘controversial’ at all and should really be a common thing.” Spark agreed, “if we can standardize these warnings across cultures and languages for better awareness it can help protect [at-risk] populations.”
Naming this year’s biggest heat waves in the U.S.
To give an idea of how naming heat waves might work, LeafScore tested the method on some of this year’s heat waves in the U.S., using gender-neutral names to address the potential gender bias in how people respond to storms. These names also do not overlap with the lists for tropical cyclone names (including those that have been retired) to avoid confusion.
Avery – Mid-June
Earlier this summer, heat wave Avery swept through several western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Temperatures ranged from a morning temperature of 98 °F in Tucson, Arizona, to highs of 107 degrees in Salt Lake City, and 118 degrees in Phoenix. The hottest temperature recorded during this period was 128 degrees in Death Valley.
Blake – Late June
Later in June, another heat wave hit the west coast higher north in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Temperatures reached 116 °F in Portland and 108 degrees in Seattle while Canada experienced record-breaking temperatures for three days with a high of 121 degrees.
Carson – August
The Pacific Northwest and northern California were hit hard in August by another heat wave. Carson and Darien were caused by high pressure systems on either side of the country. Oregon has hit 105 °F while temperatures were in the high 90s in Washington.
Darien – August
Hitting the east coast and midwest, Darien is caused by the “Bermuda High,” a high pressure system which when carried west during summer and fall in the Northern Hemisphere is centered near Bermuda. The system is located farther west this year than usual. Humidity in this region raises heat index values. In Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri, temperatures were in the low 90s with a heat index over 100 degrees in late August. Cities across the east coast from Little Rock to Boston announced heat advisories.