|Relentless heat wave roasts Russia|
|August 10, 2010|
By Andrew Freedman
While the mid-Atlantic has suffered through a sultry summer so far, conditions have not been nearly as extreme as in parts of Europe, particularly Russia.
The Russian heat wave of July and August, along with related drought conditions and wildfires, have garnered international headlines in recent weeks, and will surely be studied by climate scientists and public health experts for years to come, both for its intensity and duration.
The statistics are staggering. According to meteorologist Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, at least 26 days in a row have had temperatures exceeding 86 degrees Fahrenheit in Moscow, and those conditions are expected to continue for at least the next several days. Moscovites are simply not used to such scorching temperatures. The city's typical July daily high temperature is just 74 F, with an average August daily high of 68 F.
Authorities have already estimated that about 5,000 people may have died from the heat in Moscow alone, but that figure is expected to rise considerably, especially considering that the city has met or exceeded what had been its all-time record high temperature of 99 F five times, and has been blanketed by acrid smoke from nearby wildfires.
Masters and his colleagues at Weather Underground have been providing some of the most in-depth reporting on the meteorological dynamics behind the heat wave, as well as the climate change context in which it is taking place. Here is what Masters wrote on Aug. 6.
One of the most remarkable weather events of my lifetime is unfolding this summer in Russia, where an unprecedented heat wave has brought another day of 102°F heat to the nation's capital. At 3:30 pm local time today, the mercury hit 39°C (102.2°F) at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. Moscow had never recorded a temperature exceeding 100°F prior to this year, and today marks the second time the city has beaten the 100°F mark. The first time was on July 29, when the Moscow observatory recorded 100.8°C and Baltschug, another official downtown Moscow weather site, hit an astonishing 102.2°F (39.0°C). Prior to this year, the hottest temperature in Moscow's history was 37.2°C (99°F), set in August 1920.
The Moscow Observatory has now matched or exceeded this 1920 all-time record five times in the past eleven days, including today. The 2010 average July temperature in Moscow was 7.8°C (14°F) above normal, smashing the previous record for hottest July, set in 1938 (5.3°C above normal.) July 2010 also set the record for most July days in excess of 30°C--twenty-two. The previous record was 13 such days, set in July 1972. The past 24 days in a row have exceeded 30°C in Moscow, and there is no relief in sight--the latest forecast for Moscow calls for high temperatures near 100°F (37.8°C) for the next seven days. It is stunning to me that the country whose famous winters stopped the armies of Napoleon and Hitler is experiencing day after day of heat near 100°F, with no end in sight.
Masters stated that the heat wave has been more intense than the infamous European heat wave of 2003, which killed an estimated 40,000 people. The death toll from the Russian event may wind up being even higher than the 2003 disaster, Masters noted. However, other elements, such as the response of the public health system, will also influence the death toll and could keep the numbers down.
The wildfires alone have killed at least 50 people in recent days, and contributed to hazardous air quality in the Moscow region. The drought and fires have caused Russian authorities to suspend Russian wheat exports, pushing wheat prices skyward.
More from Masters:
The fires are the worst since 1972, when massive forest and peat bog fires burned an area of 100,000 square km and killed at 104 people in the Moscow region alone. Smoke from the current fires spans a region over 3,000 km (1,860 miles) from east to west, approximately the distance from San Francisco to Chicago... Also of concern is fires that have hit the Bryansk region of western Russia, which suffered radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in nearby Ukraine. There are fears that fires may burn through the contaminated area, releasing harmful radiation into the atmosphere.
Masters' colleague Rob Carver also recently wrote about what causes such intense heat waves. As for potential links between the heat wave and long-term climate change, Carver stated pretty much exactly what I have written here several times before (including as recently as last week):
As the climate warms, we expect heat waves to become more frequent (Ganguly et al., 2009). Now there is still considerable uncertainty on where the heat waves will occur, that seems to depend on the climate model used. However, the physics of heat waves do not change. Heat waves in climate simulations are still associated with upper-level ridges (Meehl and Tebaldi [http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/305/5686/994.pdf], 2004). This suggests that we will likely see more heat waves like the Muscovite heat wave of 2010 in the future.
The extreme heat that has gripped many parts of the world this year has been truly impressive from a historical standpoint. Masters and author Chris Burt have calculated that more countries have established new all-time high-temperature records this year -- 17 -- than in any other year in the instrumental record, for example.
While extreme weather and climate events have occurred throughout history and will continue to occur regardless of climate change, the warming climate increases the odds (or at least is projected to do so) that certain extreme events will occur. This includes droughts and associated wildfires, as well as intense heat waves. However, climate change cannot be said to cause an individual event, given the countless variables that determine day-to-day weather. This is a nuance that can be tricky for the media to convey, as I discussed on the CBC Radio program "The Current" a few weeks ago.
In the case of the Russian heat wave, for example, it is most accurate to think of climate change as a suspected accomplice to a crime, but not necessarily the main perpetrator. Unfortunately, advocacy groups on all sides of the climate issue tend to portray the science in far too certain (or uncertain) of ways.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.
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