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Americans cool off at the US World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, on June 19, 2024. Extreme heat and high humidity smothered the central and northeastern United States, with temperature records expected to melt away in the coming days, authorities warned, as wildfires sizzled in the west. Image Credit: AFP

LONDON: Dangerous heatwaves are scorching cities on four continents as the Northern Hemisphere marks the first day of summer, a sign that climate change may again bring about record-breaking heat that could surpass last summer as the warmest in 2,000 years.

Countries around the Mediterranean have endured another week of blistering high temperatures that have contributed to forest fires from Portugal to Greece and along the northern coast of Africa in Algeria, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth Observatory.

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In Serbia, meteorologists forecast temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) this week as winds from North Africa propelled a hot front across the Balkans. Health authorities declared a red weather alert and advised people not to venture outdoors.

Belgrade’s emergency service said its doctors intervened 109 times overnight to treat people with heart and chronic health conditions.

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In neighbouring Montenegro, where health authorities also warned people to stay in the shade until late afternoon, tens of thousands of tourists sought refreshment on the beaches along its Adriatic coast.

Europe this year has been contending with a spate of dead and missing tourists amid dangerous heat. A 55-year-old American was found dead on the Greek island of Mathraki, police said on Monday - the third such tourist death in a week.

People riding a swan boat sit under a canopy of shade during a heatwave in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 19, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Parts of the US Northeast and Midwest are also wilting under a heat dome, with more than 86 million people under a heat alert on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

A heat dome occurs when a strong, high-pressure system traps hot air over a region, preventing cool air from getting in and causing ground temperatures to remain high.

Under its heat emergency plan, New York City said it would open its cooling centres for the first time this year.

Meteorological authorities also issued an excessive heat warning for parts of Arizona, including Phoenix, on Thursday, with temperatures expected to reach 45.5°C (114 F).

Counting the dead

India’s summer period lasts from March to May, when monsoons begin slowly sweeping across the country and breaking the heat.

But New Delhi on Wednesday registered its warmest night in at least 55 years, with India’s Safdarjung Observatory reporting a temperature of 35.2°C (95.4 F) at 1am.

Temperatures normally drop at night, but scientists say climate change is causing nighttime temperatures to rise. In many parts of the world, nights are warming faster than days, according to a 2020 study by the University of Exeter.

Residents fill their containers with water supplied by a municipal tanker in New Delhi on June 19, 2024 amid heatwave. Image Credit: AFP

New Delhi has clocked 37 consecutive days with maximum temperatures at or above 40°C (104 F) since May 14, according to weather department data.

An official at the Indian health ministry said on Wednesday there were more than 40,000 suspected heatstroke cases and at least 110 confirmed deaths between March 1 and June 18, when northwest and eastern India recorded twice the usual number of heatwave days in one of the country’s longest such spells.

Gaining accurate death tolls from heatwaves, however, is difficult. Most health authorities do not attribute deaths to heat, but rather the illnesses exacerbated by high temperatures, such as cardiovascular issues. Authorities therefore undercount heat-related deaths by a significant margin - typically overlooking thousands if not tens of thousands of deaths.

Record warm temperatures

The heatwaves are occurring against a backdrop of 12 consecutive months that have ranked as the warmest on record in year-on-year comparisons, according to the European Union’s climate change monitoring service.

The World Meteorological Organization says there is an 86 per cent percent chance that one of the next five years will eclipse 2023 to become the warmest on record.

While overall global temperatures have risen by nearly 1.3°C (2.3 F) above pre-industrial levels, climate change is fuelling more extreme temperature peaks - making heatwaves more common, more intense and longer-lasting.

On average globally, a heatwave that would have occurred once in 10 years in the pre-industrial climate will now occur 2.8 times over 10 years, and it will be 1.2°C warmer, according to an international team of scientists with the World Weather Attribution (WWA) group.

Scientists say heatwaves will continue to intensify if the world continues to unleash climate-warming emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

If the world hits 2°C (3.6 F) of global warming, heatwaves would on average occur 5.6 times in 10 years and be 2.6°C (4.7 F) hotter, according to the WWA.