‘Record smashing’ heatwaves: Research reveals which countries are most at risk

A woman cools-off at a public fountain of the Sforza Castle, in Milan, Italy.
A woman cools-off at a public fountain of the Sforza Castle, in Milan, Italy. Copyright P Photo/Luca Bruno
Copyright P Photo/Luca Bruno
By Rosie Frost
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

Scientists have identified which parts of the world are facing increased risk as climate change makes heatwaves longer, more frequent and more intense.


Under-prepared regions across the world are at most risk from the devastating effects of scorching temperatures, scientists have warned.

Researchers at the University of Bristol have shown that unprecedented heat extremes combined with socioeconomic vulnerability put certain places in peril. Afghanistan and Central America were revealed to be among the regions most at risk.

Beijing and Central Europe were also on the list of heatwave hotspots. If record-breaking temperatures occurred in these densely populated areas, the researchers say millions of people would be adversely affected.

Scientists say extreme heat can happen anywhere

Scientists used climate data and modelling to pinpoint where in the world temperature records are most likely to be broken and the communities in the greatest danger from extreme heat.

They found that “statistically implausible extremes” occurred in 31 per cent of the regions they analysed between 1959 and 2021.

There was no particular pattern to where these temperature abnormalities were happening. This means these extremes, where current records are broken by margins that seem impossible until they occur, could happen anywhere.

In this study, we show that such record-smashing events could occur anywhere.
Dann Mitchell
Study co-author

“We have seen some of the most unexpected heatwaves around the world lead to heat-related deaths in the tens of thousands,” says co-author Dann Mitchell, Professor in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment.

“In this study, we show that such record-smashing events could occur anywhere.”

The researchers also say countries that are yet to experience the most intense heatwaves are particularly susceptible to harm. Adaptation measures are often only introduced after the worst effects are felt.

Growing populations along with limited healthcare and energy provision increase risks too.

Castel Franck/ABACA via Reuters Connect
Researchers say extreme heatwaves could happen anywhere in the world.Castel Franck/ABACA via Reuters Connect

Where in the world is most at risk from extreme heat?

Despite the emphasis on the ubiquity of these events, some parts of the world face greater risk from extreme heat.

Afghanistan, which the study calls “one of the least developed countries globally”, is of particular concern. Though the region usually has hot summers, an abnormal weather event could see temperatures approach the limits of the human body. Steep projected population growth also exacerbates potential risks from hotter temperatures.

In Central America, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama were also highlighted by the study’s authors. Extreme heat in these countries could jump well above anything they have seen before. This makes it difficult for them to adapt to the maximum temperatures of the future.

Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are all overdue for a record heatwave too and population density puts them at risk. But, as developed nations, they are much more likely to have plans in place to mitigate risks.

At-risk regions need action plans for heatwaves

The scientists from the University of Bristol are calling for policymakers in these at-risk regions to make action plans to reduce the risk of deaths and other associated harms from climate extremes.

“As heatwaves are occurring more often we need to be better prepared,” says lead author and climate scientist Dr Vikki Thompson.

As heatwaves are occurring more often we need to be better prepared.
Dr Vikki Thompson
Lead author and climate scientist

This means improving our understanding of where communities are not ready for climate extremes and how to prioritise mitigation in the most vulnerable regions. As climate change increases the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves, there is potential for thousands more excess deaths globally.

“We identify regions that may have been lucky so far - some of these regions have rapidly growing populations, some are developing nations, some are already very hot,” Dr Thompson adds.


“We need to ask if the heat action plans for these areas are sufficient.”

Share this articleComments

You might also like