Too hot to handle: Study shows Earth's killer heat waves worsening video

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Footage of Trafalgar Square, London, sweltering on the hottest June day since 1976.

Killer heat is getting worse, a new study shows.

Deadly heat waves like the one now broiling the American west are bigger killers than previously thought and they are going to grow more frequent, according to a new comprehensive study of fatal heat conditions. Still, those stretches may be less lethal in the future, as people become accustomed to them.

A team of researchers examined 1949 deadly heat waves from around the world since 1980 to look for trends, define when heat is so severe it kills and forecast the future.

Holidaymakers enjoy the high temperatures on Blackpool beach as the UK has been officially put on heat wave alert.
CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES

Holidaymakers enjoy the high temperatures on Blackpool beach as the UK has been officially put on heat wave alert.

They found that nearly one in three people now experience 20 days a year when the heat reaches deadly levels.

READ MORE: Every year could bring heat wave if climate change continues

 
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Footage of people stripping off and jumping into the fountains at Trafalgar Square, London, as temperatures rise above 30 degrees.

But the study predicts that up to three in four people worldwide will endure that kind of heat by the end of the century, if global warming continues unabated.

"The United States is going to be an oven," said Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii, lead author of a study published on Monday (Tuesday NZ Time) in the journal Nature Climate Change .

The study comes as much of the US swelters through extended triple-digit heat in Fahrenheit. Temperatures hit records of 106F, 105F and 103F (41.1C, 40.6C and 39.4C) in Santa Rosa, Livermore and San Jose, California on Sunday (Monday NZT), as a heat wave was forecast to continue through midweek. Parts of Arizona are forecast to hit 120F (48.9C) on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT).

A man basks in the sun and heat on the Blackpool Promenade in Blackpool, England, where temperatures are expected to ...
CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES

A man basks in the sun and heat on the Blackpool Promenade in Blackpool, England, where temperatures are expected to peak at 34C.

In late May, temperatures in Turbat, Pakistan, climbed to about 128F (53.3C); if confirmed, that could be among the five hottest temperatures reliably measured on Earth, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of Weather Underground.

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Last year 22 countries or territories set or tied records for their hottest temperatures on record, said Masters, who wasn't part of the study. So far this year, seven have done so.

"This is already bad. We already know it," Mora said. "The empirical data suggest it's getting much worse."

Mora and colleagues created an interactive global map with past heat waves and computer simulations to determine how much more frequent they will become under different carbon dioxide pollution scenarios. The map shows that under the current pollution projections, the entire eastern United States will have a significant number of killer heat days. Even higher numbers are predicted for the southeast US, much of Central and South America, central Africa, India, Pakistan, much of Asia and Australia.

Mora and outside climate scientists said the study and map underestimate past heat waves in many poorer hot areas where record-keeping is weak. It's more accurate when it comes to richer areas like the United States and Europe.

If pollution continues as it has, Mora said, by the end of the century the southern United States will have entire summers of what he called lethal heat conditions.

A hotter world doesn't necessarily mean more deaths in all locales, Mora said. That's because he found over time the same blistering conditions - heat and humidity - killed fewer people than in the past, mostly because of air conditioning and governments doing a better job keeping people from dying in the heat. So while heat kills and temperatures are rising, people are adapting, though mostly in countries that can afford it. And those that can't afford it are likely to get worse heat in the future.

"This work confirms the alarming projections of increasing hot days over coming decades - hot enough to threaten lives on a very large scale," said Dr Howard Frumkin, a University of Washington environmental health professor who wasn't part of the study.

Mora documented more than 100,000 deaths since 1980, but said there are likely far more because of areas that didn't have good data. Not all of them were caused by man-made climate change.

Just one heat wave - in Europe in 2003 - killed more than 70,000 people.

 - AP

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