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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 08/ 9/2010

Relentless heat wave roasts Russia

By Andrew Freedman

* Getting really hot, again: Full Forecast | Massive new iceberg *

Temperature departures from average for the Russian Federation from July 20-27, 2010, compared to temperatures for the same dates from 2000 to 2008, as measured by satellite sensors. Note the deep reddish hues, signifying above-average temperatures, in western and southwestern Russia. Credit: NASA.

While the mid-Atlantic has suffered through a sultry summer so far, conditions have not been nearly as extreme as in parts of Europe, particularly Russia. The Russian heat wave of July and August, along with related drought conditions and wildfires, have garnered international headlines in recent weeks, and will surely be studied by climate scientists and public health experts for years to come, both for its intensity and duration.

The statistics are staggering. According to meteorologist Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, at least 26 days in a row have had temperatures exceeding 86 degrees Fahrenheit in Moscow, and those conditions are expected to continue for at least the next several days. Moscovites are simply not used to such scorching temperatures. The city's typical July daily high temperature is just 74 F, with an average August daily high of 68 F.

Authorities have already estimated that about 5,000 people may have died from the heat in Moscow alone, but that figure is expected to rise considerably, especially considering that the city has met or exceeded what had been its all-time record high temperature of 99 F five times, and has been blanketed by acrid smoke from nearby wildfires.

Masters and his colleagues at Weather Underground have been providing some of the most in-depth reporting on the meteorological dynamics behind the heat wave, as well as the climate change context in which it is taking place. Here is what Masters wrote on Aug. 6.

One of the most remarkable weather events of my lifetime is unfolding this summer in Russia, where an unprecedented heat wave has brought another day of 102°F heat to the nation's capital. At 3:30 pm local time today, the mercury hit 39°C (102.2°F) at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. Moscow had never recorded a temperature exceeding 100°F prior to this year, and today marks the second time the city has beaten the 100°F mark. The first time was on July 29, when the Moscow observatory recorded 100.8°C and Baltschug, another official downtown Moscow weather site, hit an astonishing 102.2°F (39.0°C). Prior to this year, the hottest temperature in Moscow's history was 37.2°C (99°F), set in August 1920.
The Moscow Observatory has now matched or exceeded this 1920 all-time record five times in the past eleven days, including today. The 2010 average July temperature in Moscow was 7.8°C (14°F) above normal, smashing the previous record for hottest July, set in 1938 (5.3°C above normal.) July 2010 also set the record for most July days in excess of 30°C--twenty-two. The previous record was 13 such days, set in July 1972. The past 24 days in a row have exceeded 30°C in Moscow, and there is no relief in sight--the latest forecast for Moscow calls for high temperatures near 100°F (37.8°C) for the next seven days. It is stunning to me that the country whose famous winters stopped the armies of Napoleon and Hitler is experiencing day after day of heat near 100°F, with no end in sight.

Masters stated that the heat wave has been more intense than the infamous European heat wave of 2003, which killed an estimated 40,000 people. The death toll from the Russian event may wind up being even higher than the 2003 disaster, Masters noted. However, other elements, such as the response of the public health system, will also influence the death toll and could keep the numbers down.

The wildfires alone have killed at least 50 people in recent days, and contributed to hazardous air quality in the Moscow region. The drought and fires have caused Russian authorities to suspend Russian wheat exports, pushing wheat prices skyward.

More from Masters:

The fires are the worst since 1972, when massive forest and peat bog fires burned an area of 100,000 square km and killed at 104 people in the Moscow region alone. Smoke from the current fires spans a region over 3,000 km (1,860 miles) from east to west, approximately the distance from San Francisco to Chicago... Also of concern is fires that have hit the Bryansk region of western Russia, which suffered radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in nearby Ukraine. There are fears that fires may burn through the contaminated area, releasing harmful radiation into the atmosphere.

Masters' colleague Rob Carver also recently wrote about what causes such intense heat waves. As for potential links between the heat wave and long-term climate change, Carver stated pretty much exactly what I have written here several times before (including as recently as last week):

As the climate warms, we expect heat waves to become more frequent (Ganguly et al., 2009). Now there is still considerable uncertainty on where the heat waves will occur, that seems to depend on the climate model used. However, the physics of heat waves do not change. Heat waves in climate simulations are still associated with upper-level ridges (Meehl and Tebaldi [], 2004). This suggests that we will likely see more heat waves like the Muscovite heat wave of 2010 in the future.

The extreme heat that has gripped many parts of the world this year has been truly impressive from a historical standpoint. Masters and author Chris Burt have calculated that more countries have established new all-time high-temperature records this year -- 17 -- than in any other year in the instrumental record, for example.

While extreme weather and climate events have occurred throughout history and will continue to occur regardless of climate change, the warming climate increases the odds (or at least is projected to do so) that certain extreme events will occur. This includes droughts and associated wildfires, as well as intense heat waves. However, climate change cannot be said to cause an individual event, given the countless variables that determine day-to-day weather. This is a nuance that can be tricky for the media to convey, as I discussed on the CBC Radio program "The Current" a few weeks ago.

In the case of the Russian heat wave, for example, it is most accurate to think of climate change as a suspected accomplice to a crime, but not necessarily the main perpetrator. Unfortunately, advocacy groups on all sides of the climate issue tend to portray the science in far too certain (or uncertain) of ways.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | August 9, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Media, News & Notes, Science  
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Posted by: paulmerrifield | August 9, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

According to the 1941 Yearbook of Agriculture, the historic high-temperature record for Moscow is 100 degrees, not 99. The Yearbook notes a "35-year" record period [from 1940], indicating that records date back to 1905. The 1941 Yearbook of Agriculure "Climate and Man" is a good source for old U.S. and international weather records.

Is it possible that Celsius/Fahrenheit conversion could account for this one-degree discrepancy? I notice that RT [Russia Today] TV, available from MHz on cable, uses "89F" for 32 Celsius, while others say "90F". I believe the conversion factor generally uses the fraction 9/5 + 32 degrees when converting to Fahrenheit and 5/9 - 32 degrees when converting to Celsius.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | August 9, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

You don't have to yell, Paul, we're right here.

Mr. Freeman, I'm glad you're writing about this, but it seems a little wishy-washy to say that "climate change is not necessarily the main perpetrator" of this event but yet "there will be more heat waves like this one in the future."

Maybe you want to say, "There have always been heat waves, but climate change will make them worse."

Oh well, the people who would have purchased that Russian wheat can just buy it from Australia instead. Oh, wait . . .

Also, are there any dots to connect re. our hot July, these fires, and the Pakistan floods, which I'm reading are historic?

Posted by: fallschurch1 | August 9, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I was in southern Spain during Summer 2003. Now THAT was a heatwave... Around 120 degrees every damned day. I remember looking up in September and seeing a cloud, and I thought "Wow! I haven't seen a cloud in months!"

Posted by: Langway4Eva | August 9, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

What I find disturbing in terms of extreme weather and research is a correlation that is occurring between extremely abnormal and destructive weather and weather research, weather computer modeling and experimentation, and environmental monitoring and remote sensoring, and weather modification research that is being done to both model and be able to create through artificial means, the extreme weather conditions that are now occurring. Massive amounts of weather, climate and environmental research and experimentation is now being done and the largest supercomputer in the world, Japan's Earth Simulator, is now being used to track remote sensing monitors around the world and crunch vast amounts of weather and climate data that is necessary for weather modification. In looking at the areas of weather and climate research and monitoring and remote sensoring and satellite and computer capabilities, the extremely abnormal weather and climate have been following the increased capabilities in weather modification and weather monitoring and modeling and it appears related.

Posted by: citizenUS | August 9, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

It's so sad that the average person, even in arguably developed, modern societies like the the U.S., cannot get their heads around questions that are not blessed with binary answers. People want to know, "is this due to climate change, or is it not?", as if the answer were a bold-faced yes or no. The real, natural world is not LIKE that. The answer is that the natural variations will be made worse by climate change, so that events like this one will be worse than they would have been. And it would behoove us to do something now to head off the worst of that "modulation" in the future.

Shades of grey. What a scary, inaccessible concept for our infantile public, and our dumbed down media (Mr. Freedman and a few others excepted).

*shaking head and muttering off into the ether*

Posted by: B2O2 | August 9, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

According to the The World Almanac (2009):

The longest hot spell in the world occurred in Marble Bar, W. Australia. Temperatures were 100 degrees or higher for 162 consecutive days, October 30, 1923 to April 7, 1924.

The highest official world temperature is 136 degrees recorded at El Azizia, Libya, on September 13, 1922

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 9, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

The oil spills, hurricanes, floods, mudslides, and the global heat wave (which have been the cause of many fires, toxic smoke, and deaths) have many searching for answers. The internet is buzzing with articles and excellent blogs. But could it be simply the biblical sequence of God's wrath being poured out upon the earth which is relevant to current events in today's world. What if we are dealing with the wrath of God? Please understand the wrath of God is letting man slip deeper and deeper into the consequences of his own sin. Please visit my website at Rev. Daniel W. Blair author of the book Final Warning

Posted by: Hereigns7 | August 9, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Events such as our 1936 heat wave may come more often, but they will not be worse. It is, after all, weather, and weather is controlled by jet streams (or lack thereof), water vapor, etc. A 0.2 or 0.3 degree increase due to CO2 is obviously of small importance to the extremes pointed out by Andrew. Claims of more warming than that from CO2 are forgetting that weather and "positive feedback" are identical.

Here's a paper to back up the claim that 2003 was primarily a weather event

Posted by: eric654 | August 9, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Hereins7 may actually have the correct answer. There is certainly a lot of evidence to back it up.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | August 10, 2010 12:26 AM | Report abuse

Hereigns7 has to be right. Prrrraise the Laawd!!

Posted by: SWester2010 | August 10, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

Hereigns7 is not necessarily the only person saying this, nor is fundamentalist Christianity...the Japanese Buddhist sage Nichiren said basically the same thing during the 13th century when faced with a shogunate and Buddhist hierarchy ignoring the Lotus Sutra. The issues facing the Kamakura Shogunate at that time involved untimely storms and untimely drought, as well as earthquakes, fires, comets and other signs in the heavens, internal strife and the threat of foreign invasion. To quote Nichiren's "Rissho Ankoku Ron":

"When heaven and earth are stricken by terrible heat so that the air seems to be on fire, when the hundred plants wither and the five kinds of grain fail to ripen, when the earth is red and scorched and the inhabitants all perish--when prodigies of this kind occur, this is the sixth disaster."--the third of seven disasters also refers to various types of fires; the seventh disaster, foreign invasion, occurred in 1274 when the Mongols invaded Japan...and also in this country on 9/11/2001. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | August 10, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm. Yes, its exceedingly warm were Russia's population is concentrated - around Moscow - but look a bit west and what do you know - there's a comparable area in Siberia that is 12 degrees BELOW normal. And if you pan a bit to the LEFT to western Europe, you see the same amount of cold there. So one could say "POPULATED areas of Russia" are experiencing unprecedented heat but not the whole country.

Oh and Hereigns7, try Matthew c24 v36 and v42. Yes the Lord reigns...

Posted by: dbleader61 | August 10, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gordon Edwards on the flames threat to Chernobyl:

Posted by: nuclearMusclehead | August 10, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Oh where are the climate records for 1000 years ago.

Posted by: sabarski | August 10, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

One of the most interesting posts I've read on CWG but distressing to see this blog being taken over by zealots.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | August 10, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

from Australia, we have the coldest June days for forty years, and the coldest june day ever recorded at Alice Springs in central Australia. Not that it is particularly significant ,as its winter down here. No iceberg armadas off New Zealand this winter, though.

Posted by: drianh | August 11, 2010 3:21 AM | Report abuse

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