Cerberus or Caronte? Why Europe Is Starting to Name Heat Waves

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European news outlets are referring to the latest heat wave in Southern Europe as “Caronte,” after the ferryman in Dante Alighieri’s poem “Inferno.” That name was chosen not by the World Meteorological Organization or another official agency, but by Antonio Sanò, who founded the Italian weather website Il Meteo.

Some climate experts are urging government agencies to start naming heat waves, as they do for hurricanes and tropical storms.

Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which focuses on climate adaptation, said that naming and categorizing heat waves based on their severity would raise awareness about the dangers of extreme heat.

“Heat, because it is silent and invisible, does not have the telegenic nature of these other big climate hazards like floods, hurricanes and fires,” Ms. McLeod said. “People don’t have the awareness that’s necessary, and that’s why it’s killing more people than any other climate hazard. It needs P.R. and branding,” she said.

Mr. Sanò, the founder of Il Meteo, said he started naming heat waves in 2012 as a way to explain the heat wave to the public in a simple and memorable way. A devoted reader of classical literature, Mr. Sanò named last week’s heat wave in Southern Europe “Cerberus,” after the multiheaded dog that guards the underworld in Greek mythology.

So far, however, government agencies have no immediate plans to assign names to heat waves.

The World Meteorological Organization said in a statement on Tuesday that naming heat wave events puts the focus on the wrong issues. The organization, which has a membership of 193 member states and territories, added that assigning names could misdirect public and media attention away from the messages that matter most, including who was in danger and how to respond.

A study published last week in the journal Nature Medicine found that more than 61,000 people died because of last year’s summer heat waves across Europe.

The National Weather Service in the United States also has no plans to start naming heat waves, according to Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service. But it is working on its public messaging about the dangers of heat and improving the public’s understanding of its health impacts.

An average of more than 600 people are killed each year by extreme heat in the United States, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number is likely much higher because death from heat strokes are often not categorized as such.

Heat waves are expected to become more frequent, particularly in urban centers, where the risk tends to be higher. A major United Nations climate report released in October highlighted new data that showed heat waves would affect virtually every child around the world by 2050. Children face greater risks from heat because they are less able to regulate their body temperatures.

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