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Heat waves could increase substantially in size by mid-century: Study

PTI | Washington DC | Updated: 09-10-2019 14:01 IST | Created: 09-10-2019 13:42 IST
Heat waves could increase substantially in size by mid-century: Study
Image Credit: Pixabay

The average size of heatwaves could increase by 50 percent by mid-century, in a middle greenhouse gas emissions scenario, according to a study. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that under high greenhouse gas concentrations, the average size could increase by 80 percent and the more extreme heatwaves could more than double in size.

While the climate continues to warm, scientists expect the frequency and intensity of heatwaves to increasing. However, a commonly overlooked aspect is the spatial size of heatwaves, despite its important implications. "As the physical size of these affected regions increases, more people will be exposed to heat stress," said Brad Lyon, Associate Research Professor at the University of Maine in the US.

"Larger heatwaves would also increase electrical loads and peak energy demand on the grid as more people and businesses turn on air conditioning in response," Lyon said. In addition to heatwave size and exposed population, the researchers found that related attributes like duration, magnitude, and cooling degree days -- a measure for energy use -- could increase substantially.

However, Lyon noted that these results were not particularly surprising. "An increase in attributes like magnitude and duration is consistent with expectations of a warming climate," said Lyon.

"What is new in our study is the way we calculated them, which allowed us to consider size as a new heatwave dimension," he said. Previous research has generally calculated heatwave statistics at the local level -- computing attributes like frequency for each location, or grid point, and then aggregating the results to see spatial patterns.

In this study, the researchers followed heatwaves and quantified their attributes as connected regions that move around and change in size and strength over their lifetime. "It's sort of like watching what groups of people are doing as they move around together in a park, rather than just counting how many people from all those groups entered the park," said Lyon.

The researchers explained that the added stress from a continuous heatwave in a region is very different from scattered conditions that add up to an area of the same size. "If you have a large contiguous heatwave over a highly-populated area, it would be harder for that area to meet peak electric demand than it would be for several areas with smaller heat waves that, when combined, are the same size," said Tony Barnston, Chief Forecaster at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

By looking at heat waves from this perspective, the researchers were able to assess how a heat wave's size, in addition to factors like its intensity and frequency, can impact communities. They note that their new approach could help utility stress test their energy system's capacity to meet demand requirements during spatially extensive heat waves.



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