Extremes are the new normal, with Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick

The causes of heat waves are kind of like the controls on a car. We know that pressure systems, land-atmosphere interactions, and modes of variability like ENSO act to control extremes, just as we know that the steering wheel, moderated by the brake and gas pedals, controls the direction and velocity of the car. But imagine driving a car blindfolded. Yes, you know what the controls do, but the chances of hitting something hard are pretty high if you keep the gas pedal down, careening across even the most familiar of roads. For extremes, the moment-to-moment, season-to-season occurrence of extremes will remain challenging to predict, like the exact moment at which you’ll veer out of your lane, but the coming impact of blindly increasing emissions is more certain. Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick from the University of New South Wales endured the horrendous heat of Australia’s 2017 summer – pregnant, in a badly insulated house with wobbly air conditioning – and is studying heat waves and how they will change in a persistently warming climate. As Sarah tells Mike, the news is almost uniformly not good. Unless the foot comes off the gas pedal, the car is going to hit the wall: rare events in today’s climate are likely to become seasonally persistent; different emission pathways might delay but won’t alter the ultimate arrival of catastrophic heat. Of course, society could adapt, and Australians could end up living the bulk of their lives in air conditioned spaces, at the cost of further emission increases, radical changes to lifestyle, and eye-popping expense. Is this the world we want? Let’s hope not, but the mitigation equivalent of self-driving cars is not going to magically appear. It’s just us.

Music: Balkan Qoulou by Watcha Clan CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US; Backed Vibes Clean by Kevin MacLeod CC BY 3.0


  1. Great to see this one. I’ve been following Sarah’s work closely so it was mostly familiar material, but I was surprised to hear that model daily data analysis couldn’t even be done until so recently.

    By happenstance, today I saw this recent article. It’s not fresh news strictly speaking but is the first time I recall seeing the role of increasing heatwaves referenced for a chronic health problem. Seems like a harbinger of more and worse to come.

  2. Related topic idea: Near real-time analyses of extremes, an area of rapid growth in climate science. What are the implications for peer-reviewed publication? I was reminded of this issue by this paper on which Sarah was co-author, but which hasn’t appeared after 14 months. I don’t actually know that there’s a problem with this particular one, but safe to say it’s a potential issue. What’s NPG’s policy on such things?

    1. It is case-by-case. We don’t hold conference presentations, working papers, etc. against authors. But if they have launched a major media campaign to promote the work, and the submission doesn’t promised anything substantial beyond that, we might well decline consideration. This hasn’t happened in my almost nine years at Nature (at least for the papers I’ve handled!) but that’s not to say that the situation *won’t* arise.

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