Sunday, March 27, 2011

Deadly heatwaves will be more frequent in coming decades, say scientists

The heatwave that scorched eastern Europe in 2010, killing thousands of people and devastating crops, was the worst since records began and led to the warmest summer on the continent for at least 500 years, a new scientific analysis has revealed.

The research also suggests that "mega-heatwaves", such as the prolonged extreme temperatures that struck western Europe in 2003 will become five to 10 times more likely over the next 40 years, occurring at least once a decade. But the 2010 heatwave was so extreme – 10 °C above the average for the first week of August between 1970 and 2000 – that similar events are only expected to occur once every 30 years or so.

Searing temperatures in July and August 2010 across Russia are estimated to have killed 50,000 people, say the researchers, who were led by David Barriopedro at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Mortality rates in Moscow doubled compared with the previous year, filling morgues to capacity as people succumbed to heatstroke and respiratory problems. More heat-related deaths are expected to have occurred in the Baltic states Ukraine and Kazakhstan, though these figures have not yet been estimated.

The mega-heatwave also cut the Russian grain yield by 25%, sending food prices soaring, and left a million hectares of land burned. The nation's losses are estimated at $15 bn. (read more)