Heat Waves in the East Could Become Common in US

July 09, 2010

Many East Coasters have felt some of the hottest temperatures on record for this time of the year. Washington hit 102 degrees on Weds. Jul. 7, breaking the 99-degree record for the day set in 1991. Unfortunately—results of a study that surprised even climate scientists show that long heat waves could be common in the US within the next 30 years from climate change. The Stanford University study’s lead author, Noah Diffenbaugh, noted,

In the next 30 years, we could see an increase in heat waves like the one now occurring in the eastern United States or the kind that swept across Europe in 2003 that caused tens of thousands of fatalities… Those kinds of severe heat events also put enormous stress on major crops, like corn, soybean, cotton and wine grapes, causing a significant reduction in yields.

NASA graphic on temperature deviations the past decade (click to enlarge)

The study follows an analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies showing that the last decade, from January 2000 to December 2009, was the warmest on record. The Stanford-led study reveals that intense heat waves, equal to the longest on record from 1951-1999, are likely to occur as many as five times between 2020-2029 over parts of the US. A dramatic spike in extreme temperatures is also expected during the current decade over much of the US. The 2020’s and 2030’s could see even more extreme temperatures, particularly in the West. From 2030-2039, most places in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico could experience at least seven seasons as hot as those ever recorded between 1951 and 1999. “Frankly, I was expecting that we’d see large temperature increases later this century with higher greenhouse gas levels and climate change,” Diffenbaugh said. “I did not expect to see anything this large within the next three decades. This was definitely a surprise.” The study also raises concerns that the targeted 2-degree Celsius maximum temperature increase by policymakers may be too high a threshold to prevent extreme temperatures. The target was cited, for example, in the climate accord by the US and over 100 other countries at the UN Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009. “Our results suggest that limiting climate change to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial conditions may not be sufficient to avoid serious increases in severely hot conditions,” Diffenbaugh said. Learn more about your climate impact and reducing your carbon footprint, as well as how you can offset in support of carbon reduction projects around the world by visiting