Heatwaves involving 50°C temperatures could hit holiday destinations in southern Spain, Turkey and Tunisia sooner than previously predicted as the impact of climate change rapidly increases temperatures, climate scientists warn.

A peer-reviewed study, published in the Nature journal, finds that some countries bordering Mediterranean sea and in the Middle East are likely to see yearly temperatures exceeding 50°C within the next 80 years as a direct result of climate change.

The study used climate modelling to map a range of scenarios, including looking at weather models which excluded climate change impacts, current weather modelling and climate projections for the future up to 2100.

It estimated a probability of extreme temperatures in 12 locations across three continents, including Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Professor Dann Mitchell and Met Office scientists Dr Nikos Christidas and Professor Peter Stott found that at all the locations researched “temperatures above 50°C would have been extremely rare or impossible in the pre-industrial world”, but as a result of human-induced climate change “their likelihood is rapidly increasing”.

Temperatures up to 50°C are “extremely likely” in cities across southern Spain by the end of the century, according to Mr Mitchell, a professor of climate science at the University of Bristol.

He told i that Seville, one of the 12 locations researched, is a “region of concern”. Modelling from one weather station showed current projections for the city of a one-in-a-million year likelihood for temperatures to exceed 50°C, which rises to a one-in-ten year likelihood of exceeding 50°C by 2100.

Travel insurers have warned that climate change is already having an impact on holidays, especially in Europe, and the findings of this study could ‘”change the world map for holidaymakers” in the future.

Mr Mitchell said the study was important because it showed how rapidly temperatures are rising. This was stark during last year’s heatwave in Europe, when temperatures hit levels that scientists thought were near-impossible.

“If you’d asked us two years ago the likelihood of a 40°C heatwave in the UK, we would have said it was probably a one-in-100 or one-in-200 year event, and then it happened last year. So it might indicate to us that things are increasing faster than we are expecting.

“In a sense, there’s nothing special about 50°C. Every tenth a degree a heatwave increases, it causes significantly more mortality and disruption. The actual threshold numbers are not that important, but it’s a way of hammering home why we need to care about extreme heat.”

Countries in north Africa and the Middle East – including Tunisia, Libya and Saudi Arabia – showed “quite obvious” results of yearly 50°C heatwaves within the next 80 years, the study found.

This was not as surprising at locations already experiencing temperatures of or nearing 50°C, Mr Mitchell said, but it is unusual in places like Libya and Qatar, where it is currently “extremely unlikely to happen”.

A boy cools off in the fountain in Piazza Castello in Turin on August 12, 2021, as temperatures are expected to rise sharply in the coming days. - An anticyclone dubbed Lucifer is sweeping across Italy, sending temperatures soaring and causing what is believed to be a new European record of 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.8 Fahrenheit) in Sicily on August 11. (Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP) (Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)
In 2021 a deadly European heatwave – named Lucifer – produced a new record of 48.8°C in Sicily (Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty)

The impacts of severe heat on human health is known. The risks of heat stroke and dehydration increase exponentially, and people with pulmonary diseases or other underlying conditions are more at risk because their bodies struggle to cool down naturally.

Prof Ilan Kelman, an expert in disaster and risk at University of College London said these temperatures were dangerous for human health, especially for working outside – that could have flow on effects for agriculture and construction industries, and the impact on food supplies.

“With regular heatwaves at these temperatures, deaths would be expected to increase substantially, especially if it does not cool down at night.

“It would certainly be dangerously hot to work outside, such as in agriculture and construction, with knock-on impacts on food supplies. Many people would rely on indoor cooling to survive, which would be unhelpful when power grids are overloaded leading to outages.”

In 2022, Europe was hit with heatwaves that caused widespread wildfires, and contributed to a surge in excess deaths. In Spain and France, for instance, temperatures exceeded between 40-43°C over the summer. France reported that heat led to 10,420 fatalities in total. Spain reported that there were 4,655 heat related deaths.

In England and Wales, deaths spiked by 3,271 during 2022’s extreme heatwaves, the highest number during heat periods for the past five years.

Analysis: The unthinkable has already happened

By Tom Bawden

Not so long ago, temperatures of 50°C would have seemed unthinkable in the Mediterranean.

But in 2021 a deadly European heatwave – named Lucifer – produced a new record of 48.8°C in the Mediterranean heart of Sicily, that wasn’t too far off.

A Met Office analysis concluded that these kind of temperatures would have been a one-in-10,000-year event until very recently, in the absence of climate change. So virtually impossible.

That summer was Europe’s hottest on record, with an average summer temperature of 20.6°C, almost 1 per cent higher than the 1991-2020 average – a level that would have been “impossible without human-induced climate change,” the Met Office said.

And it warned that these kind of heatwaves will become common with Europe now likely to be getting a “Lucifer” style heatwave with temperatures of nearly 50°C every three years in this new climate – with all the excess deaths and other hardships that that entails.

Now, if that weren’t concerning enough, a new study in the Nature journal suggests climate change may be pushing up temperatures even more than feared.

This predicts that within 80 years the Mediterranean and Middle East will not only be experiencing temperatures of above 50°C – but it will be doing so every year.

And it means that holiday popular holiday destinations such as Tunisia and Seville, which have traditionally had enticing climates, may increasingly prove too hot to handle.

A separate 2019 study in the journal PLOS ONE suggested that within three decades London would have the climate Barcelona has now while the weather in Manchester will resemble that of Lyon, as the UK’s climate effectively moves 900 miles south.

That may have sounded good in some ways but it raised the question of – if that’s happening in Manchester what’s it going to be like somewhere hot? That question has been answered in this latest study and it’s not good.

Nor is the Mediterranean climate Britain faces good for this country, as neither nature or infrastructure is set up to cope.

It is too late to prevent significant temperature rises in the next few decades as the volume of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere heats the planet.

But with urgent action – that many doubt will happen – increases further down the line could be lower than expected as studies like these help to concentrate minds.

The threat of climate disaster is also affecting travel, with insurers warning that holidaymakers are likely to abandon current popular destinations should temperatures continue to rise at pace.

Polling by InsureandGo last summer found that 65 per cent of Britons thought Spain would become too hot by 2027. Greece followed shortly behind at 59 per cent and Turkey at 55 per cent.

Garry Nelson, director of corporate affairs at the company, told i that it was becoming a factor in where people were choosing to go on holiday.

“I think the study shows that more than ever – people are conscious of climate change, conscious of much much higher temperatures, and conscious of a different kind of danger on holiday.

“Where they used to think about getting sunburnt, they might now be thinking ‘I could actually get burnt by a fire.’ That’s a worry when all you want to do is go away and have a nice time.”

Chief executive Chris Rolland added: “The combined prospect of extreme weather and rising sea levels does threaten to change the world map for holidaymakers.”

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