Recent heat wave in the Mediterranean caused by climate change: Study

A three-day heat wave occurred in parts of southwestern Europe last month.

May 5, 2023, 11:57 AM

LONDON -- Human-caused climate change led to the record-breaking heat wave that hit Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Algeria last month, according to a new study.

In fact, researchers found that those scorching temperatures would have been almost impossible without climate change. The findings were published Friday by the World Weather Attribution, an international group of climate scientists seeking to rapidly determine whether certain extreme weather events were influenced by climate change.

A group of school children cool off walking along a fountain at the Plaza Espana square in Seville on April 26, 2023 as Spain is bracing for an early heat wave.
Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Ten environmental scientists around the globe, as part of the World Weather Attribution, collaborated to assess how much human-induced climate change had altered the likelihood and intensity of a three-day heat wave that occurred in parts of southwestern Europe and North Africa during the last week of April. Following peer-reviewed methods, researchers said they analyzed weather data and computer model simulations to compare the climate of today with the past.

"As the planet warms, these situations will become more frequent and call for long-term planning, including implementing sustainable agricultural models and effective water management policies," said Fatima Driouech, associate professor at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Ben Guerir, Morocco.

People have a break and some row in a boat on the Retiro park's lake in central Madrid, as Spaniards are bracing themselves for an early heat wave, on April 25, 2023.
Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

From April 26 to 28, countries bordering the western Mediterranean Sea recorded temperatures much hotter than usual for that time of year. The national record for April was broken in Portugal and mainland Spain. In Morocco, local records for April were shattered across the nation as temperatures topped 41 degrees Celsius (about 106 degrees Fahrenheit) in some cities, including Sidi-Slimane, Marrakech and Taroudant. Meanwhile, temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in northwestern Algeria, according to the study.

"Temperature records have again been broken by a large margin, as in some other recent heat waves around the world," said Sjoukje Philip, researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute in De Bilt, Netherlands. "The fact that temperature trends in the region are higher than what models predict shows that we need to better understand the regional effects of climate change so that we can adapt to even more extreme heat in the future."

"Early season heat waves tend to be deadlier as people have not yet prepared their homes or acclimated to summer temperatures," said Roop Singh, senior climate risk adviser at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in The Hague, Netherlands. "In Spain, for example, we saw heat wave adaptation measures put in place earlier than usual, which is exactly the type of adaptive heat action we need to see more of to reduce preventable deaths from heat."

People stand in Tamariz beach as temperatures rise in Estoril, Portugal, April 27, 2023.
Pedro Nunes/Reuters, FILE

The April heat wave came amid a backdrop of a historical, multi-year drought in the region, which researchers said exacerbated the effects of the high temperatures on crops already threatened by increasing water scarcity due to the combined effect of climate change and water use. And while researchers noted that people in the Mediterranean region are no strangers to hot weather, they said the intense heat combined with the ongoing drought likely intensified the situation.

"The Mediterranean is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change in Europe. The region is already experiencing a very intense and long lasting drought and these high temperatures at a time of the year when it should be raining is worsening the situation," said Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment in London. "Without rapidly stopping the burning of fossil fuels and adaptation towards a hotter, drier climate, losses and damages in the region will continue to rise dramatically."

ABC News' Tracy Wholf contributed to this report.

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