Last month was the hottest June ever recorded. The records continued to be broken early this month as the average global temperature surged to its highest ever level. Brutal heat waves are now blazing in North America, Europe, and some regions of Asia, and with El Niño warming once again in the Pacific, experts say 2023 could become the hottest year the world has ever seen.
Whether or not the dire milestone is reached remains to be seen‚ but the catastrophic consequences of a rapidly warming planet are already painfully evident.
As of Monday, record monsoon rains in South Korea over the weekend led to at least 40 deaths as the downpours triggered landslides and flooding around the country. In one particularly chilling case, at least 13 people died in the central city of Cheongju as over a dozen vehicles became trapped as floodwater poured into an underpass.
Drivers must have realized their fate as thousands of gallons of water from a burst riverbank gushed into the tunnel. The death toll is expected to rise with emergency crews still working on Monday to drain the 2,200-foot underpass as divers were sent into the water to retrieve the bodies of victims. At least nine survivors have been pulled from the water as worried relatives gathered at a local hospital for updates on their missing loved ones.
“I have no hope but I can’t leave,” the parent of one of the people missing in the tunnel told the Yonhap news agency. “My heart wrenches thinking how painful it must have been for my son in the cold water.”
The downpours have also brought devastation to other parts of the country. At least 19 people died and eight were missing in the central North Gyeongsang region as landslides engulfed houses. Thousands of others were evacuated on Saturday in areas near the Goesan Dam as it started to overflow for the first time in 43 years in North Chungcheong.
Both North Chungcheong and North Gyeongsang recorded more rainfall in the last three days than the average of the entire monsoon month, which typically starts in June and ends in August.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol was unambiguous about the causes of the crisis. “This kind of extreme weather event will become commonplace—we must accept climate change is happening, and deal with it,” he said at an emergency meeting Monday.
On the other side of the earth, in the American South and Southwest, millions of people are currently sweltering in extreme heat. “Record-breaking heat is expected each day through mid-week in the Four Corners states, from Texas to the Lower Mississippi Valley, and South Florida,” the National Weather Service said on Monday.
In Europe, Italian health officials have warned people to stay inside this week as the third heat wave in a month stifles the country, with triple-digit temperatures expected in several cities. The European Space Agency said other European countries including France, Germany, and Poland may also see extreme temperatures.
Health officials in Japan issued heatstroke warnings in 32 of its 47 prefectures on Monday as it too saw temperatures over 100F, while the China Meteorological Administration confirmed that China recorded its highest-ever temperature on Sunday—a mind-boggling 126F in the western Xinjiang region.
“The fickle nature of weather patterns determines where and when extreme weather events take place, but the giant waves propagating around the hemispheres can often connect areas of extreme heat, drought, and deluge,” said Richard Allan, professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading in the U.K. “The heat waves affecting parts of North America, southern Europe, and areas of Asia are linked through these giant planetary waves that have become lodged in place, causing extreme heat in these regions but also intense rainfall and flooding in others.”
Alarmingly, experts say the situation could get worse both in the immediate future and in the coming years. “Scientists have shown that such heat waves are occurring more often with climate change, and with El Niño conditions this year, we are likely to see many more temperature records broken in the coming months,” said Vikki Thompson, a climate scientist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. “Heat waves will continue to increase in intensity, frequency, and duration unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically.”
In March, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report calling climate change “a threat to human well-being and planetary health.” “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” the report added.
“This is just the beginning,” Professor Simon Lewis, University College London’s Chair of Global Change Science, said of the current heat crisis. “This is what the climate system can do at just 1.2 degrees C warming. Current policies globally have us hitting 2.7 degrees C warming by 2100. That’s truly terrifying.”