Predicting Heat Waves

Crowds swimming at the Barton Springs Municipal Pool in Austin, TX.

The United States, Europe, and Russia have all seen deadly, record-breaking heat waves in recent years, largely in areas that are ill-equipped for sustained high temperatures. A new paper presents a theory that predicts how hot these heat waves can get and what mechanism ultimately breaks the hot streak.

Heat waves start when an area of high-pressure air forms over land, with an anticyclone circulating around it. Air at the center of the zone warms and rises, and if the anticylone can’t move, temperatures will just keep rising. Despite the heat, there is still moisture in the rising air of a heat wave. The authors found that if that moist air can reach an altitude where the atmospheric pressure is 500 hPa (a typical altitude of 5-7 km), then the maximum daily temperature will stop rising. At that altitude, the moist air can condense into rain, and, even if that rain evaporates before reaching the ground, it is enough to cool temperatures.

The key variable in the theory is the atmospheric temperature at 500 hPa, something that meteorological models are able to predict well up to three weeks in advance. That means this theory should enable meteorologists to give advanced warning of high temperatures, helping communities prepare. (Image credit: T. Baginski; research credit: Y. Zhang and W. Boos; via APS Physics)

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