Except in Seville, Spain, they were calling the heat wave “Xenia.” In Greece and Cyprus, it was dubbed “Cleon.” And before anyone could agree, Italy’s il Meteo commercial meteorological service reported that the weather system had moved on and it was now anticyclone “Charon” — named after the ferryman of the underworld — that was bringing the heat.
All that seems to reflect a desire in Europe to start attaching names to extreme heat events — which are becoming so common that they sometimes blur together in people’s consciousness. But what naming system to use, which forecasts warrant names and who should make the calls are far from settled.
Southern Europe soars to record temperatures as heat wave peaks
For decades, government meteorologists have been naming typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes — depending on where they formed. They were all female names until the late 1970s, incidentally.
Wildfires are often given names, usually bestowed by the initial attack incident commander, for a geographic feature where the conflagration began — a mountain, canyon, watershed. Floods, too, can be named, for the rivers that crest, or the dams that burst or towns destroyed. So can high winds. The British Met Office, in cooperation with Irish and Dutch national forecasting services, will deploy names for high-wind events, starting with Antoni, Betty, Cillian …
Extreme heat waves are only sporadically named today, mostly by the media. But there is a move to make the names more official — and also to categorize the threat level posed by high temperatures — to better alert and motivate the public and governments to take necessary action.
What extreme heat does to the human body
Extreme heat is already the number-one weather-related cause of death in the United States. Heat kills more people most years than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined.
And yet researchers note that heat doesn’t have the dramatic visuals that hurricanes and floods produce. Heat is — at least visually — more subtle. The news media show tourists splashing in Roman fountains. They don’t tend to show seniors, construction workers or babies in the emergency room.
Hannah Cloke, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, said that naming dangerous heat events could be a useful tool. “Because it helps us to talk about it,” she said.
Cloke said naming an anticyclone Cerberus, “after a big scary monster, made sense,” both as branding and metaphor. “Because it is scary.”
But she cautioned that with global greenhouse gas emissions still soaring, there will be many more, more frequent, more intense heat waves in coming years. “And we will run out of monsters” to name them after.
Alan Kennedy-Asser, a researcher at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, similarly wondered, “If we name every peak in every heat wave, we might run out of ominous, hellish names relatively quickly, and could end up with the much less sinister sounding Heat Wave Gary.”
Seville to become world’s first city to name and rank heat waves
Some public health experts said naming a heat wave “Gary” might not be so bad — because even if you believe extreme heat should jolt people awake about human-driven climate change, as far as immediate action, public heath officials don’t want people to panic, but to do something sensible. Like find air-conditioning. Or drink more water.
Frederieke Otto, a climatologist at Imperial College London, said she appreciated “the hell-themed names given to the recent ones,” because deadly heat waves are the “closest we get to Hieronymus Bosch in this world,” she said referring to Renaissance-era painter known for his depictions of hell.
But she said more neutral, alphabetically ordered names might be more effective. “We still have a long way to go to take heat waves seriously and do the appropriate actions: have heat action plans, redesign our cities, stop burning fossil fuels,” she said.
Extreme heat is ruining vacations. Here’s how to cope.
One climate scientist, who asked not be named for this idea, mused, “Could they be named Heat Wave Exxon or Heat Wave Shell?” For big corporate polluters.
Then the same scientist amended the thought and said, “They should probably be named for us — because we are the ones responsible.”
Cerberus appears to have come from il Meteo, whose founder, Antonio Sanò, told Wired that his website has been naming heat waves for years.
Luca Mercalli, president of the Italian Meteorological Society, was dismissive of the name — as clickbait.
He told The Washington Post that this “is an absolutely commercial name, not recognized by the scientific community, for an anticyclone that pops up over southern Europe every year, sometimes more mild, sometimes much worse,” like this month.
But Mercalli said he supports naming these events by official bodies, according to well-defined criteria.
With coronavirus variants, the world is learning the Greek alphabet, one grim letter at a time
Identifying which heat events should get names, though, is not as obvious as naming cyclones or hurricanes.
“Although the general public will have a good intuitive understanding of what a heat wave is, objectively defining a heat wave in scientific terms is not a straightforward task,” said Kennedy-Asser of Bristol University.
“How extreme must a heat wave be to deserve a name?” he wondered.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations group that coordinates global weather observation, has said that while it has “no immediate plans” to name heat waves, it recognizes the interest and is considering the pros and cons.
The WMO acknowledged the potential problems of ad hoc naming. “Independent practices to rank and name heat waves which are not coordinated with the official warning systems, may risk disrupting civil protection protocols and coordination efforts, bring unintended negative consequences, or reduce the effectiveness of established heat advisory and response measures,” the organization said in a statement.
The group stressed that established protocols for hurricanes may not translate to extreme heat, and that heat waves can be reliably be forecast in some regions and not others. It worried about raising “false alarms,” especially if named events turn out to be more mild than forecast.
Kathy Baughman McLeod is the director of the Adrienne Arsht Rockerfeller Foundation Resilience Center, which has been pushing to name and categorize heat waves. She said that these soaring temperatures appear as almost “silent events” that need “PR and branding” to save lives.
Scientists say as many as 61,000 people died from heat in Europe last year.
Baughman McLeod said that weather and public health agencies should coordinate and focus on how to categorize heat waves by severity — by nighttime temperatures (needed to cool the body), cloud cover, humidity and three-day average forecasts.
Her group has been running a pilot program in Seville, the beautiful but notoriously hot tourist city in southern Spain.
So far, the municipality has had three named events: Zoe in July 2022, Yago last month and Xenia this month. The idea is to work backward through the alphabet, using relatively uncommon names. Still to come? Wenceslao and Vega.
“Early evidence show it works,” said Baughman McLeod, adding that the project is preparing a research paper now for publication. She said surveys suggest that people in Seville who could remember the name of a heat wave were more likely to have taken positive action to protect themselves.
“Nobody has to die from heat waves,” she said.
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.