The current heat wave in Italy is “very unusual,” says Mercalli, because of its long duration: The heat event is expected to last roughly two weeks. A study published in May estimated that, until the late 1990s, the average European heat wave would last one week or less, but this has since increased significantly due to global warming.
The sweltering conditions in the Mediterranean are coinciding with extreme heat events elsewhere in the world, such as in the southern US, where temperatures could reach 120 degrees Fahreheit in parts of Arizona. Plus, the southern European heat wave is linked to the one currently affecting Morocco and Algeria in North Africa. The countries are feeling the force of the same anticyclone.
Heat waves are deadly, but meteorologists are not yet in agreement over whether we should give them names and, if we do, whether we should choose especially emotive or colorful ones, such as those from mythology.
Someone who is unperturbed by the choice of Cerberus, however, is Friederike Otto at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment.
“I think they should have claimed it,” she jokes, referring to the Italian Meteorological Society’s denial. But she argues a serious point: People still underestimate the threat heat waves pose. As Otto told WIRED last year before the extreme heat that claimed so many lives in Europe, these weather events are often the most deadly of all, even compared to large storms.
“Cerberus … it’s the dog of hell, right? I think that’s a pretty appropriate name for a heat wave,” says Otto.
Others aren’t so sure. Hannah Cloke at the University of Reading agrees that heat waves are “silent killers,” and that people often fail to take them as seriously as they should. However, freaking the public out about weather events isn’t desirable, she says. On social media, it is easy to find comments from people who are critical of the use of such a scary name.
“We’re going to run out of dangerous monsters quite quickly,” says Cloke, arguing that people could become desensitized to this approach. “In the longer term, it’s not ideal.” Simple names, such as those used for storms, may be more useful in helping to raise awareness about a weather event and conveying that protective action is required, she adds.
“We believe a heat wave needs branding and identity,” says Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of Arsht-Rock, as she points out that storms and floods are much more visually dramatic than heat events. The World Meteorological Organization does not currently give official names to heat waves, but Baughman McLeod and her colleagues hope that an internationally recognized, and standardized, system will emerge in the coming years. “That’s exactly our ambition,” she says. She declines to comment on the suitability of Cerberus and notes that the name Xenia applies to the heat wave only within the city of Seville.
Her organization determines whether a heat wave requires a name by using an algorithm that takes into account daytime and nighttime temperatures, cloud cover, humidity, and other factors. If the algorithm shows there is a major risk to life, for example a potential 30 percent increase in overall mortality, the heat wave gets a name, says Baughman McLeod.