Size of heat waves could dramatically increase by mid-century

Increased greenhouse gas concentrations could escalate the size of heat waves by mid-century, according to a recent study by the NOAA Climate Program Office’s Climate Observations and Monitoring Program, and published by

The study reveals that a mid-range greenhouse emissions scenario by mid-century would increase the average size of heat waves by 50%, and high levels of greenhouse gas concentrations would increase them by 80%–more than doubling current heat waves in size.

“As the physical size of these affected regions increases, more people will be exposed to heat stress,” said Brad Lyon, Associate Research Professor at the University of Maine and lead author of a recent paper published in Environmental Research Letters. “Larger heat waves would also increase electrical loads and peak energy demand on the grid as more people and businesses turn on air conditioning in response.”

While the frequency and intensity of heat waves have often been studied, the spatial size of heat waves has historically been overlooked, despite its important consequences. Authors explained that continuous heat waves in the same geographic region are more intense than smaller, scattered ones. They result in sustained, increased energy demands and consequently, are a greater public health concern.

“If you have a large contiguous heat wave over a highly populated area, it would be harder for that area to meet peak electric demand than it would be for several areas with smaller heat waves that, when combined, are the same size,” said Tony Barnston, Chief Forecaster at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society and paper co-author to

By studying the spatial size of heat waves, the researchers stated that this data could help city and state governments to plan for future events and allow for more informed management decisions.

“Heat wave size is another dimension of extreme heat that people don’t necessarily think of,” said Lyon to “It’s a different vantage point from which to view them and assess their impacts.”

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Author: Bronson Pennington

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