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Are You Sitting Comfortably?…

Here’s a little Climate Story about heatwaves, and the process of scientific inspiration.

Once upon a time, almost exactly 15 years ago in fact, a Climate Scientist went with his wife to a City of Towers in the Duchy of Tuscany, to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. It was an idyllic setting – the City of Towers had not changed in the 10 years since they had visited it first on their honeymoon. They arrived late one golden summer evening and found the Vernaccia white wine they had at their aperitif still deliciously crisp, the ice cream from the legendary gelateria in the main square still luscious, and the view from their bower in their favourite hotel still breath taking.

But the next morning they discovered one thing had changed: the heat.

It was hot. It was so hot the wine got warm before they could drink it, the ice creams melted in the time it took to carry the cones out of the gelateria into a shady spot round the corner, and the view was hidden by the shutters that had to be kept closed all day to keep temperatures within toleration indoors. The City of Towers only came alive at night, when temperatures dropped to a bearable level. Everyone was exhausted by the heat, tormented by the need to find relief from the physical feeling of oppression and jeopardy generated by the extreme weather. The Sun had become the enemy.

What was happening to the world? Everywhere in Europe people were suffering. Heat extremes were reached in places singularly unadapted to deal with those temperatures. Pictures began to emerge from hospitals across the continent, showing the continent’s Elders succumbing to the heat, and those already vulnerable through illness having to contend with yet another threat. Summer – holiday time, fun time, family time, relaxation time, had become deadly.

One evening the Climate Scientist and his wife emerged from their refuge in the dark into the hot night and made their way to a restaurant on the City walls. They sat down at a table looking over the darkening Tuscan hills, and drank their Vernaccia perhaps a shade too quickly to keep it cool. They toasted the ten happy years they had spent together, and fell to talking about the changing world. And the Climate Scientist began to muse: “I wonder if it’s possible to figure out whether the odds of these kinds of extreme heat events have increased due to climate change. How might I go about working that one out?”

And at that moment, a wondrous Transformation came over the Climate Scientist: for the rest of their stay, only half of him was present in the City of Towers. The other half had flown off into the Realm of Mathematics, where he spent several months working out the solution to his question, posed in the evening heat of that Tuscan holiday.

The result was a seminal research paper, published in Nature in 2004, marking the start of what has since become a new branch of climate science: extreme event attribution.

The Climate Scientist in question is of course Peter Stott, and the writer of this post was with him that evening in San Gimignano.

And 15 years have elapsed since that murderous summer, and here we are again…

 

Pierrette Thomet

 

Stott, P. A., Stone, D. A., Allen, M. R., Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003 . Nature, 432, 610-614. This paper has been cited over 650 times and is now receiving more citations per year than any previous year since it was published in 2004.

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