The hottest month ever

July 2023: we are living through Earth’s warmest three-week period on record. A round-the-world media tour to enter the narrative of the period that will mark the history of the climate change public discourse. At least until the next record is broken.

“If it were a sports competition, thoughts would immediately turn to doping. In fact, never have so many records fallen all together. The record for the hottest day, warmest month and most ice-poor Antarctica set between June and July is not a performance for everyone. Better than the weather this year, only Michael Phelps did”. In an article pubblished by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the journalist Elena Dusi uses a sharp analogy to summarize the last, unnatural, month.

July started with the daily global mean surface air temperature record being broken on four days in a row, from 3-6 July. All days since then have been hotter than the previous record of 16.80°C, set on 13 August 2016. The hottest day was 6 July, when the global average temperature reached 17.08°C, and the values recorded on 5 and 7 July were within 0.01°C of this. This means that the first three weeks of the month was the warmest three-week period on record. During the first and third weeks, temperatures also temporarily exceeded the 1.5°C threshold above preindustrial level – a limit set in the Paris Agreement. ERA5 data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service also show that the global mean surface air temperature for the first 23 days of July was 16.95°C. This is well above the 16.63°C recorded for the full month of July 2019, which is the current hottest July and hottest month in the ERA5 record. It is almost certain that, in due course, data will show July 2023 to break both these records.

Extreme heatwaves across three continents this month were made significantly more likely by the human-caused climate crisis, according to a new analysis released on 25th of July as temperatures are still blazing in parts of the Northern hemisphere. The scientists said that the developing El Niño, a cyclical weather phenomenon that warms the Pacific Ocean, likely helped push up temperatures a little; but that global warming from burning fossil fuels was the main reason the heatwaves are so severe. “The heat hell searing parts of the United States and southern Europe would have been «virtually impossible» without climate change, while climate change made China’s heat wave at least 50 times more likely, according to a rapid attribution analysis from the World Weather Attribution initiative” told reporters Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London.

A high-pressure anticyclone named Cerberus, a reference to the monstrous watchdog of the underworld in Greek mythology, began moving in from the south on July 10. It was followed by Charon, named for the mythological ferryman who transported souls from the world of the living to that of the dead. That weather system saw parts of Greece, Spain and Italy record temperatures above 45°C, a resume by Al Jazeera explains.

A few days ago, Athens faced its hottest July weekend in 50 years with temperatures forecast to soar above 40°C the nation. The previous heatwave record in Greece was set in 1987 when scorching temperatures higher than 39°C lasted for 11 days. Authorities in Athens said archaeological sites, including one at the Acropolis, would be closed during the hottest hours of the day because of the new heatwave. According to the New York Times, the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mītsotakīs, warned on Monday of several difficult days ahead, describing Greece as «at war». Wildfires forced to evacuate almost 20,000 people from the island of Rhodes, and some airlines cancelled flights. But Rhodes is not alone: Corfu and Evia are burning too. Firefighters are trying to get the flames under control, but partial evacuations have already been organised.

In Spain, wildfires continue to burn out of control on the Canary island of La Palma. According to the Agencia Estatal de Meteorología (Aemet), as reported in El Mundo newspaper, the sea temperature reached an average of 24.6°C in mid-July, about 2.2° C higher than normal. The value “far exceeds the records of the two previously warmest years”, 2015 (24°C) and 2022 (23.7°C) and is “unprecedented for mid-July in the entire historical series”. Like many Mediterranean countries, Tunisia is experiencing temperatures of 6-10°C above the average for this time of year. Firefighters in the country are battling a major blaze that has raged for two days in a pine forest near the border with Algeria, a civil defence official said on the 20th of July. From heat waves to hailstorms, Italy is blowing hot and cold. Though the peak passed last week, the country remains in the grip of the heat. However, extreme weather has also caused some intense hail storms, particularly in northern Italy. On July the 24th, oblong hail the size of melon (a diameter of almost 20 cm) came down near Pordenone, breaking the previous European record. The world record is held by a hailstone measuring 20.3 cm that fell in South Dakota in 2010.

Across the continent, doctors, scientists and officials have told people to take extra care in these weeks. Indeed, heat can have a significant impact on society, including a rise in heat-related deaths. Heatwaves are among the most dangerous of natural hazards, but rarely receive adequate attention because their death tolls and destruction are not always immediately obvious: only in some cases, such as heat stroke, death is immediate due to heat exposure, while in most of them, the combination of heat exposure and pre-existing medical conditions results in death. Therefore, heat is not usually listed as a cause of death on the death certificate; statistical methods should be used to estimate the extent of heat-related deaths. A study published on July the 10th in Nature Medicine found more than 61,000 people had died last year in Europe from summer heat. Southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal were the hardest hit. Women and older people died at the highest rates.

The Italian health ministry has asked emergency rooms across the country to activate so-called heat codes, assigning a separate group of medical staff to treat people who come in with symptoms caused by the heat. Similar measures were brought in at the start of 2020, when Italy became the epicentre of the Covid pandemic in Europe. There has been a 20% increase in the number of patients being admitted with heat-related symptoms, according to the health ministry. In the meantime, factory workers and labourers call for furlough as heat becomes too intense to work in. “Stefano Olmastroni is one of five people in Italy whose death over the past week is believed to have been provoked by the extreme heat as a more intense anticyclone, Caronte, broke a temperature record in Rome and nudged the mercury to almost 47°C in Sicily. The true death toll is likely to be far greater” wrote Angela Giuffrida in a news story for the Guardian titled «A horrible way to die: how extreme heat is killing Italian workers».

Picture Credits: European Union, Copernicus Climate Change Service Data.

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