Seville names and categorizes heat waves as hurricanes

Parts of southern Europe experienced an aggressive heatwave last summer, which killed dozens of people across the Mediterranean, from Italy to Turkey, and claimed the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in Syracuse, Sicily. For its fiery intensity, the extreme heat event was dubbed “Lucifer”.

It was just a one-time labeling, rather than part of a structured naming system that scientists have applied to natural disasters like hurricanes. But as extreme heat continues to become a threat (experts say a Lucifer could occur every three years), Seville, Spain is the first city in the world to name its heat waves, giving them an identity. recognizable to people. It also categorizes them, but unlike hurricanes, it does so based on health outcomes rather than weather bases. This week, the mayor of Seville, Antonio Muñoz, announced the summer pilot project, dubbed proMETEO, which, if successful, could be a model for other cities around the world.

Extreme heat is a “silent killer,” says Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. The foundation has worked to combat extreme heat, which kills five million people a year worldwide, including by appointing “heat chiefs” around the world, including in Miami, Athens, Greece and Santiago, Chile. But they needed more heat awareness. “We think we need to do something quickly, and something dramatic, to bring attention to the problem,” Baughman McLeod said.

By categorizing heat waves, people know how hot to expect and what they can do to stay safe. Bioclimatologist Larry Kalkstein spent 18 months researching the best way to categorize them, based on climatology, meteorology and health data. He developed a three-category system that would tell people how to act in each case, similar to those for hurricanes. Kalkstein, who lives on the Florida coast, says it’s because of the category distinctions that he knows whether to evacuate or just move furniture indoors.

Hurricane categories are based on pure weather – essentially wind speed – and the potential for that wind speed to damage property. In the case of heat, Kalkstein developed a method to link categories to health outcomes. This is important because the same magnitude of heat wave could have different impacts on people’s health, depending on what time of year it occurs or exactly where it occurs in a given area. . For this reason, identical weather storms could theoretically be classified into different categories.

A street thermometer reads 47 degrees Celsius (116.5 degrees Fahrenheit) during a heatwave in Seville on June 13, 2022. [Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images]

It is important to note that heatwave warnings will trigger different resilience responses. Cities like Seville, the hottest city in continental Europe, already have well-established thermal interventions, but the idea now is to vary these actions according to category. This could be the opening of municipal swimming pools, water parks and cooling stations to cool off; disseminating category-specific advice, such as drinking a certain number of glasses of water a day, or canceling appointments and keeping children indoors; moreover, by mobilizing municipal health workers to intervene, for example by watching over the most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, whose deaths from extreme heat reached 104,000 in the EU in 2018 .

But categories were not enough; they also needed a “PR factor,” says Baughman McLeod, in the form of naming the heat waves. While categories tell people what to do, naming is the “great exercise in retail branding to convey gravity and get you to pay attention,” she says. The names helped people remember the most notorious storms clearly. “We help people remember how serious they can be by saying Katrina, Maria, Sandy,” she says. Kalkstein lived in Louisiana in 1969 during Hurricane Camille, the second most intense hurricane in US history, which destroyed much of the Gulf Coast. “If you said, ‘Oh, that 1969 hurricane,’ I think that’s a lot less accurate than saying, ‘Oh, Hurricane Camille,'” he says.

In the case of Seville, the pilot will start by naming only the heat waves in the most extreme category. Unlike the hurricane system, they will start at Z and continue through the alphabet, alternating female and male names, beginning with Zoe, Yago, Xenia, Wenceslao, and Vega. The team enlisted a behavioral science company to host a focus group to choose memorable names that were Spanish, but relatively rare.

In the fall, Kalkstein’s team will evaluate the pilot, making sure the times they called the heat warnings were sometimes with actual negative health outcomes. “We need a whole summer of data to make sure,” he says. Already, other cities are in contact with Kalkstein and working on their systems, including Melbourne, Australia, Miami and Los Angeles. On the same day proMETEO was launched, Athens also rolled out its categorization system, using Kalkstein’s methodology, although it is not yet naming heat waves.

Baughman McLeod intends to publish a chart of upcoming heat waves each summer that are named and classified, much like the National Weather Service does for hurricanes. This is all to educate the public to stay safe. “It’s one of the brightest parts of climate work,” she says, “that people don’t have to die of heat. It’s preventable.”

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