Spain has named its heat wave “Zoe”. As extreme weather events increase, is it time for Australia to do the same?

Heat waves are our deadliest natural hazard, but right now they are an unnamed and often silent killer.

But change could be on the way – Spain has just named a heat wave for the first time.

So could naming the heat waves help give the rampant killer more seriousness and inspire people to take action?

Or would trying to name highly variable, location-dependent phenomena cause more confusion and dilute the effectiveness of cyclones and other warnings?

Record heat waves have gripped the northern hemisphere this season.(Reuters: Henry Nicholls)

Why would we name heat waves?

Ailie Gallant, an associate professor at the Monash University School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, says that because heatwaves are “a bit of a silent disaster”, they are not considered “immediately catastrophic”.

“But when you think of injuries in terms of heatstroke and heat exhaustion, and when you look at heat-related mortality, it’s really the deadliest natural disaster,” she said. .

“In that sense, I think if we can raise awareness of the event as it unfolds – and if that helps by giving it a name – that can only be a good thing, really. .”

University of Melbourne climatologist Andrew King agrees with the concept.

“We name other types of extreme weather – including tropical cyclones – and this draws attention to their impacts and makes it easier for people to track them as they approach and to understand how the risks change as the weather changes. forecasts change,” he said. .

“I think it’s helpful to draw attention to severe weather in general, and naming episodes of intense heat could help people to be hopefully better prepared and aware of their impacts.”

Mel Taylor, head of natural hazards research at Macquarie University, notes the air of complacency we have with heatwaves.

“We are getting used to the very hot weather, especially in Australia,” she said.

“They come and go, sometimes with little attention.

“We’ve just continued in the past, but I think we need to pay more attention now to climate change and the increased intensity of all our natural disaster events.”

Dr Taylor said if we expected heat waves to get more intense, it made sense to start taking steps to communicate the risks.

“I’m not sure of the exact name, but I think there would be benefits to making a sort of series of hot days a heat wave, a more salient whole,” she said.

A woman with braids in a bun on her head wipes sweat from her face with a hand towel.
Heat waves in Europe and the United States are compounded by widespread drought.(PA: Nathan Howard)

Risk Frontiers scientist Maxime Marin says there could be a benefit to naming a heatwave even after the event has ended.

“When the event happens people get emotional, there’s a lot of talk, then a few months later people forget and we go to another extreme,” he said.

“Assigning an event a name can help the event stay in people’s minds.

He also noted the potential effects of naming an event.

“There is no downside to naming heat waves, only upsides, only upsides,” Dr. Marin said.

“It will help raise investment funds to develop the understanding of these heat waves and the resilience policies we can put in place – prevention, forecasting and things like that.

“Everything is going in the right direction.”

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What could be the difficulties?

Dr King said heat waves could be “quite difficult” to define.

“There are a lot of different definitions,” he said.

“It depends on your exact thresholds, but we know that as the climate gets warmer, we expect heat waves to become much more frequent and longer lasting and, especially in the tropics, they somehow coalesce. so.

“So we could end up calling summer a long heat wave in places like Darwin, potentially – so that’s probably not really that helpful.”

Dr King said thought should be given to how heat waves were named.

“There are pitfalls, but there’s nothing that’s really a major pitfall,” he said.

“These are all things that can be circumvented.”

Dr Gallant said the nature of heat waves could make it difficult to name them.

“[Heatwaves] are created by specific weather phenomena, but these weather phenomena are not as organized and pleasant as, say, a tropical cyclone, which you can see on the satellite.

“The heat waves aren’t as sharp – but at the same time I think naming something says it’s a thing and it’s important.

“I think it’s not a bad idea if it raises awareness that people should actively do something about it and prepare for it – I think that’s only a good thing.”

According to Dr. Taylor, potential confusion between the names of cyclone and heat wave could also be a problem.

“If you were to have both events at the same time, what are you talking about? Are you talking about a cyclone now? Or are you talking about a heat wave?” she says.

“But I think it’s more helpful than harmful.

“The idea that we can have names given to events that can still be useful once the weather event crosses a geographic boundary, I think that might be a useful thing.”

A map showing the severity of a heat wave in Australia.
A BOM heatwave forecast map released in December 2019, showing the three severity categories.(Provided: Bureau of Meteorology)

What do we have now?

Despite their invisible nature, a lot of work goes into studying and predicting heat waves in Australia.

“In Australia, where we’re very lucky in this regard, where we have a lot of very good scientists. Australian scientists are world leaders in heat wave research,” Dr Marin said.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) already has a method for identifying and categorizing heat waves.

To meet the official criteria for a heat wave, the nomenclature calls for “three or more days of unusually high maximum and minimum temperatures for this location.”

They are then classified by severity and represented on a heat wave forecast map.

Dr King says the BOM does a fairly good job of predicting heat waves and using its warning system during the hottest months – but a system is only effective if people know about it.

“I don’t know how many people know about this,” he said.

“Maybe there would be more awareness with the addition of…the naming of a heat wave.”

In Australia, we’ve had a respite from the heat waves over the past two wet summers, but the heat will be back.

“Heat waves will only get worse with climate change and their effects will only get worse,” said Dr Gallant.

“One of the reasons we named tropical cyclones and they named winter storms in Western Europe is because of the impacts.

“[Heatwaves] have significant impacts and may constitute a danger to human life.

“So if it’s only going up, I actually think there’s probably a strong case for naming things like heat waves.”