As the reality of climate change sets in temperatures this summer reached the highest ever recorded on Earth.
These new temperature highs brought a spate of heat waves, which scientists say are likely to increase in frequency and intensity with global warming. What has been less studied until now is how climate change will affect the spatial size of heat waves in the future.
In a new study funded in part by NOAA and published in Environmental Research Letters, scientists examining this question came up with some startling results.
The scientists found that in a mid-range greenhouse emissions scenario the average spatial size of heat waves could increase by 50% by the middle of this century. If greenhouse gas concentrations are in the higher range, however, the average size could increase by 80%, or more than double in the case of more extreme heat waves.
“As the physical size of these affected regions increases more people will be exposed to heat stress,” lead author of the study Brad Lyon told Science Daily.
Lyon, an associate research professor at the University of Maine, said larger heat waves would add extra strain on the energy grid as more turn to air conditioning to stay cool.
According to Lyon, the new research could be used by energy utilities to help them stress test their energy system’s capacity to cope with demand during spatially large heat waves.
“Heat wave size is another dimension of extreme heat that people don’t necessarily think of,” said Lyon. “It’s a different vantage point from which to view them and assess their impacts.”