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Sixfold Increase in Historical Northern Hemisphere Concurrent Large Heatwaves Driven by Warming and Changing Atmospheric Circulations

Cassandra D. W. RogersaWashington State University, Vancouver, Washington

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Kai KornhuberbEarth Institute, Columbia University, New York, New York
cLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, New York, New York

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Sarah E. Perkins-KirkpatrickdUniversity of New South Wales, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
eARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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Paul C. LoikithfPortland State University, Portland, Oregon

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Deepti SinghaWashington State University, Vancouver, Washington

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Abstract

Simultaneous heatwaves affecting multiple regions (referred to as concurrent heatwaves) pose compounding threats to various natural and societal systems, including global food chains, emergency response systems, and reinsurance industries. While anthropogenic climate change is increasing heatwave risks across most regions, the interactions between warming and circulation changes that yield concurrent heatwaves remain understudied. Here, we quantify historical (1979–2019) trends in concurrent heatwaves during the warm season [May–September (MJJAS)] across the Northern Hemisphere mid- to high latitudes. We find a significant increase of ∼46% in the mean spatial extent of concurrent heatwaves and ∼17% increase in their maximum intensity, and an approximately sixfold increase in their frequency. Using self-organizing maps, we identify large-scale circulation patterns (300 hPa) associated with specific concurrent heatwave configurations across Northern Hemisphere regions. We show that observed changes in the frequency of specific circulation patterns preferentially increase the risk of concurrent heatwaves across particular regions. Patterns linking concurrent heatwaves across eastern North America, eastern and northern Europe, parts of Asia, and the Barents and Kara Seas show the largest increases in frequency (∼5.9 additional days per decade). We also quantify the relative contributions of circulation pattern changes and warming to overall observed concurrent heatwave day frequency trends. While warming has a predominant and positive influence on increasing concurrent heatwave frequency, circulation pattern changes have a varying influence and account for up to 0.8 additional concurrent heatwave days per decade. Identifying regions with an elevated risk of concurrent heatwaves and understanding their drivers is indispensable for evaluating projected climate risks on interconnected societal systems and fostering regional preparedness in a changing climate.

Significance Statement

Heatwaves pose a major threat to human health, ecosystems, and human systems. Simultaneous heatwaves affecting multiple regions can exacerbate such threats. For example, multiple food-producing regions simultaneously undergoing heat-related crop damage could drive global food shortages. We assess recent changes in the occurrence of simultaneous large heatwaves. Such simultaneous heatwaves are 7 times more likely now than 40 years ago. They are also hotter and affect a larger area. Their increasing occurrence is mainly driven by warming baseline temperatures due to global heating, but changes in weather patterns contribute to disproportionate increases over parts of Europe, the eastern United States, and Asia. Better understanding the drivers of weather pattern changes is therefore important for understanding future concurrent heatwave characteristics and their impacts.

© 2022 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Cassandra Rogers, cassandra.rogers@wsu.edu

Abstract

Simultaneous heatwaves affecting multiple regions (referred to as concurrent heatwaves) pose compounding threats to various natural and societal systems, including global food chains, emergency response systems, and reinsurance industries. While anthropogenic climate change is increasing heatwave risks across most regions, the interactions between warming and circulation changes that yield concurrent heatwaves remain understudied. Here, we quantify historical (1979–2019) trends in concurrent heatwaves during the warm season [May–September (MJJAS)] across the Northern Hemisphere mid- to high latitudes. We find a significant increase of ∼46% in the mean spatial extent of concurrent heatwaves and ∼17% increase in their maximum intensity, and an approximately sixfold increase in their frequency. Using self-organizing maps, we identify large-scale circulation patterns (300 hPa) associated with specific concurrent heatwave configurations across Northern Hemisphere regions. We show that observed changes in the frequency of specific circulation patterns preferentially increase the risk of concurrent heatwaves across particular regions. Patterns linking concurrent heatwaves across eastern North America, eastern and northern Europe, parts of Asia, and the Barents and Kara Seas show the largest increases in frequency (∼5.9 additional days per decade). We also quantify the relative contributions of circulation pattern changes and warming to overall observed concurrent heatwave day frequency trends. While warming has a predominant and positive influence on increasing concurrent heatwave frequency, circulation pattern changes have a varying influence and account for up to 0.8 additional concurrent heatwave days per decade. Identifying regions with an elevated risk of concurrent heatwaves and understanding their drivers is indispensable for evaluating projected climate risks on interconnected societal systems and fostering regional preparedness in a changing climate.

Significance Statement

Heatwaves pose a major threat to human health, ecosystems, and human systems. Simultaneous heatwaves affecting multiple regions can exacerbate such threats. For example, multiple food-producing regions simultaneously undergoing heat-related crop damage could drive global food shortages. We assess recent changes in the occurrence of simultaneous large heatwaves. Such simultaneous heatwaves are 7 times more likely now than 40 years ago. They are also hotter and affect a larger area. Their increasing occurrence is mainly driven by warming baseline temperatures due to global heating, but changes in weather patterns contribute to disproportionate increases over parts of Europe, the eastern United States, and Asia. Better understanding the drivers of weather pattern changes is therefore important for understanding future concurrent heatwave characteristics and their impacts.

© 2022 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Cassandra Rogers, cassandra.rogers@wsu.edu

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