Heatwaves are our deadliest natural hazard, but at the moment they are a nameless and often silent killer.
But change could be afoot — Spain has just named a heatwave for the first time.
So could naming heatwaves help to give the creeping killer more gravitas and cause people to act?
Or would attempting to name the highly variable and location dependent phenomena cause more confusion and dilute the effectiveness of cyclone and other warnings?
Why would we want to name heatwaves?
Monash University School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment associate professor Ailie Gallant says because heatwaves are a “bit of a quiet disaster”, they are not thought of as “immediately catastrophic”.
“But when we think about injuries in terms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, and when we look at heat-related mortality, they really are the most deadly natural disaster,” she said.
“In that sense, I think if we can bring an awareness to the event as it’s happening – and if that helps by giving it a name – that can only be a good thing, really.”
University of Melbourne climate scientist Andrew King is on board with the concept.
“We name other types of extreme weather – notably tropical cyclones – and this does draw attention to their impacts and allows people the ability to more easily track them when they’re approaching and understand how the risks change as the forecast changes,” he said .
“I think there’s value in drawing attention to severe weather in general, and naming severe heat events might help people become more prepared, hopefully, and aware of their impacts.”
Macquarie University’s natural hazards research leader Mel Taylor notes the air of complacency we have with heatwaves.
“We get used to hot hot weather, especially in Australia,” she said.
“They come and go, sometimes with little attention.
“We’ve just got on with it in the past, but I think we’ve got to pay more attention now with climate change and more increased intensity of all our natural hazard events.”
Dr Taylor said that if we were expecting heatwaves to become more intense it made sense to start taking action to communicate the risks.
“I’m not sure about the naming, exactly, but I think there would be some advantages to making a sort of a series of hot days a heatwave, a more salient whole,” she said.
Risk Frontiers scientist Maxime Marin says there could be a benefit to naming a heatwave even after the event is done.
“When the event happens people are moved, there’s a lot of talk going on, and then a couple of months later people forget and we move on to another extreme,” he said.
“Assigning a name to an event might help the event stay in people’s mind.”
He also noted the potential flow-on effects of giving an event a name.
“There is no downside to naming heatwaves, only upsides, only pros,” Dr Marin said.
“It will help raise investing funds and developing understanding of these heatwaves and resilience policies we can put in place — prevention, forecasting and things like this.
“It’s all going towards the right direction.”
What could the difficulties be?
Dr. King said heatwaves could be “quite hard” to define.
“There’s lots of different definitions,” he said.
“It depends what your exact thresholds are, but we know that as the climate warms we expect heat waves to become much more frequent and longer lasting and, especially in the tropics, they kind of merge together.
“So we could end up just calling summer one long heatwave in places like Darwin, potentially — so that’s probably not really very useful.”
Dr King said thought would need to go into how heatwaves were named.
“There are pitfalls, but there’s nothing that is a really major pitfall,” he said.
“These are all things that can be worked around.”
Dr. Gallant said the nature of heat waves could make naming them difficult.
“[Heatwaves] are created by specific weather phenomena, but those weather phenomena aren’t as organized and nice as say a tropical cyclone, which you can see on the satellite.
“Heat waves aren’t quite as neat — but at the same time, I think naming something says it’s a thing and that it’s important.
“I think it’s not a bad idea if it brings awareness to the fact that people should actively do something about it and prepare for it — I think that’s only a good thing.”
Potential mix-ups between cyclone and heatwave names could also be an issue, according to Dr Taylor.
“If you were to have the two things happening at the same time, what are you talking about? You’re talking about a cyclone now? Or are you talking about a heatwave?” she said.
“But I think it’s more useful than harmful.
“The idea that we can have names given to events that can still be useful once the weather event moves across a geographical boundary, I think that could be a useful thing.”
What have we got now?
Despite their invisible nature, quite a lot of work goes into studying and forecasting heatwaves in Australia.
“In Australia where we’re quite lucky in that regard, where we have a lot of very good scientists. Australian scientists are the world leaders in heatwave research,” according to Dr Marin.
The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) already has a method of identifying and categorizing heat waves.
To hit the official criteria for a heatwave, the BOM requires “three days or more of high maximum and minimum temperatures that are unusual for that location.”
They are then categorized by severity and shown on a heatwave forecast map.
Dr. King says the BOM does a pretty good job of forecasting heatwaves and using its alert system in the warmer months — but a system is only effective if people know about it.
“I don’t know how many people are aware of that,” he said.
“Maybe there would be more awareness with the added… naming of a heatwave.”
In Australia we have had a reprieve from heatwaves over the last couple of wet summers, but the heat will be back.
“Heat waves are only going to get worse with climate change and their effects are only going to get worse,” Dr Gallant said.
“One of the reasons we name tropical cyclones and that they name winter storms around western Europe is because of the impacts.
“[Heatwaves] cause significant impacts and they can be a danger to human life.
“So if that’s only going to increase, I actually think there’s probably a strong argument for naming things like heatwaves.”