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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Why Is Europe’s Latest Heat Wave Called Cerberus? It’s Complicated

If you’re at all aware of the heat wave baking southern Europe right now, you’ll have heard people referring to it as “Cerberus”—a moniker that invokes the fearsome three-headed dog of Greek mythology. In Dante’s Inferno and the classics that inspired it, Cerberus is a monster associated with the underworld.

Multiple reports about the blistering heat wave, which has pushed temperatures up to around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Spain, Italy, Greece, and other countries, have cited the Italian Meteorological Society as the institution that chose the name Cerberus for this dangerous weather event.

But there’s a problem. The society had nothing to do with the heat wave’s dramatic christening. “The name is unofficial, and we absolutely don’t use it,” says Luca Mercalli, the society’s president, adding that he finds it somewhat sensationalistic.

The name was actually chosen by Italian weather website iLMeteo specifically for the anticyclone, or high-pressure region, currently subjecting southern Europe to extreme heat—a fact confirmed to WIRED by Antonio Sanò, iLMeteo’s founder.

Sanò shrugs off the accusation that Cerberus could be considered histrionic. “Our names are not official but always become quickly famous, thanks to our popularity,” he says. iLMeteo’s habit of naming anticyclones after mythological figures is the reason the heat wave that struck Europe in 2017 became widely referred to as Lucifer—a name for the planet Venus in Roman folklore that also came to be used for the devil in Christian tradition.

The confusion over what to call 2023’s European heat wave descends still deeper, like Dante’s many circles of hell, because in the Spanish city of Seville, the heat wave has been dubbed Xenia. The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), in collaboration with the University of Seville and the City of Seville, launched its own heat wave naming system last year. This is the third time the organization has deployed it. The system runs in reverse alphabetical order and uses recognizably Spanish names—but ones that are not overly common, so as to keep them notable.

And don’t forget that Berliner Wetterkarte (a meteorological nonprofit) and the Free University of Berlin have been naming high- and low-pressure weather events in Europe since 1954. The anticyclone FEE is bringing sunny weather to Germany at the moment, says Petra Gebauer, chair of Berliner Wetterkarte. She explains that groups of meteorologists around Europe sometimes give their own names to heat waves. “Actually, the southeastern group has the name Cleon for the heat wave in Greece,” she explains, adding that she hadn’t known how the name Cerberus emerged.

The plethora of sobriquets may seem peculiar, but this shouldn’t detract from the danger posed by the present heat in southern Europe. On July 11, a man in his forties collapsed and died in Italy while working outdoors, according to local media, and there have been multiple reports of heatstroke in the country. In Spain, temperatures have hit 45 degrees Celsius in some places, and a new helpline for people affected by heat has received 54,000 calls since it went live last month. Just days ago, scientists published a study in which they estimated that nearly 62,000 people died in Europe as a result of extreme summer heat last year.

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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.

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The UK is not currently affected by the heat wave in southern Europe, notes Stephen Dixon, a spokesperson for the UK Met Office. And as the name Cerberus did not originate from a national Met service, “it’s not something we’d refer to,” he says of the label. While the Met Office does give monikers to major storms, it currently has no plans to name heat waves. The UK Health Security Agency, in partnership with the Met Office, conveys warnings through its heat-health alert service, with four levels of severity, ranging from green to red. The latter indicates “significant risk to life” and was in place for parts of the country during last year’s extreme heat event.

There are many things we can do to mitigate the impact of dangerously hot weather, says Otto. These range from regularly drinking water and checking in on elderly relatives to rethinking urban planning. It’s remarkable how much cooler a street planted with large trees can be on a sunny day, she notes as an example—up to several degrees Celsius: “That makes a huge difference.”

Unfortunately, it is certain that we will face more, and probably stronger, heat waves in the near future. “Climate science shows us that that is what’s going to happen,” says Cloke.

Baughman McLeod adds that, with the right amount of preparedness, “no one has to die from heat.”

As we all do our best to cope with ferocious summer weather whenever it comes our way, Sanò and his colleagues at iLMeteo will be ready with an evocative list of names gleaned from millennia-old myths. At the time of writing, the next anticyclone, expected in the coming days, threatens to force temperatures to as high as 43 degrees Celsius in Rome, which would be a record. In advance, iLMeteo has decided to christen the incoming high-pressure event “Caronte,” or “Charon” after the boatman who ferries souls to the Greek underworld, where only the dead may enter.

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