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Hotter Than EverLooking into the record-breaking summer temperatures in South Korea
Lee Kyung-chul  |
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승인 2016.09.07  01:42:20
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HAVE YOU ever seen Madmax or Interstellar? Both movies depict a dystopian future in which people are barely able to survive due to hot weather. The movies may have exaggerated how bad things will be, but they are definitely communicating an important message about the environment. This year, South Korea has experienced the hottest summer in modern history. Many people have complained of successive tropical nights which continued for 15 days. Moreover, according to the Korea Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 1,016 people suffered and 10 died from heat stroke this summer. Where are these heat waves coming from?
Atmospheric factors
First of all, let us take a look into atmospheric factors that cause abnormally high temperatures and humidity levels during summer in South Korea. Every summer, the influence of the North Pacific High-pressure System (NPHS) creates hot, humid weather in South Korea. The NPHS is formed at a 30-degree latitude, where the warm ocean is located at. Depending on the time of year, it fluidly moves around the northern region of the Pacific Ocean - usually southward during winter and northward during summer. Even though the center of the NPHS is located in Eastern Japan, Korea is affected more by humidity and heat due to the seasonal winds that blow from the south to north.
According to the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA), the extensive heated air from southern Russia and northern China, which was 5 hotter than average, was the primary cause of this year's summer heat. As the figure depicts, the overheated air moved from China and Russia to South Korea with the upper anticyclone and settled there. In an anticyclone, the winds tend to be light and blow in a clockwise direction. Also, there is a descending movement of the air, which reduces the formation of clouds. Basically, air heats as it descends, which causes the clouds to evaporate. Since no clouds are present to reflect sunlight, there is more incoming shortwave solar radiation which raises the temperature. In other words, the atmosphere interferes with the development of clouds, allowing the solar heat to affect directly surface temperature.  
  Not just in South Korea
Other countries around the world are also experiencing the same scorching summer. Last year, many environmental experts already predicted that 2016 will be the hottest year yet. For the first time, NASA shared a midyear climate analysis, as the recorded average temperature this year has much exceeded that of previous years. NASA’s data shows that the global temperature of each month in 2016 was the warmest month in history. This trend suggests that 2016 will surpass 2015 as the hottest year. “2016 has really blown that (previous temperature record) out of the water,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Indeed, in late July, the United States was struck with mercilessly high temperatures caused by a heat-dome phenomenon, which raised the temperature up to nearly 50°C. Additionally, temperatures in the Middle East region havebeen consistently breaking records, which have already surpassed 50°C.
 Many experts point out two fundamental causes of rising worldwide temperatures: super El Niño, a phenomenon in which surface waters of the tropical Pacific Ocean periodically warm up every three to seven years, and global warming. Super El Niño not only changes local ecology but is also linked to abnormal global climate patterns known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). During an ENSO, the temperature of the tropical Pacific Ocean normally goes up by 0.4 °C. However, the temperature rose by 2.5°C this year, and was thus assigned the name “Super” El Niño. Now the El Niño phenomenon has subsided, but the heat the ocean had stored up has been distributed across the world, which explains the unusually warm summer this year.
Additionally, global warming has accelerated, raising the average temperature worldwide. During the industrialization era over the past few decades and still now, people have been burning fossil fuels, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere and causes the greenhouse effect. Although South Korea has greatly reduced the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC-11 and CFC-12), it is still the 7th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, according to a survey from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2013. Since 1999, the Korea Global Atmosphere Watch Center (KGAWC) has been monitoring major greenhouse gases. However, according to the KGAWC, CO2 concentrations in Korea have turned out to be substantially higher than the global average. For example, the average CO2 concentration in 2011 was recorded as 395.7 ppm, which is 25.0 ppm higher than that of the annual average in 1999. It is also 5.2 ppm higher than the 2011 global average of 390.5 ppm. The annual growth rate of CO2 in Korea from 1999 until 2011 was 2.16 ppm per year, which is higher than the global average of 1.9 ppm per year.
According to the survey of climatic change by Flavio Lehner in 2016, there is a possibility of the temperature increasing from less than 10% at the present day to over 80% in 2070. However, this increase can be reduced to nearly half by climate change mitigation. Especially, a number of regions, such as Brazil, Europe, and Eastern China may benefit from the effort by experiencing risk reductions of over 50%. Since these regions are densely populated, climate change mitigation results in the global population benefiting disproportionately from a common effort.
 Damages caused by heat waves
The frequency and intensity of heat waves are expected to increase as global warming proceeds. Potential impacts from such high temperatures range from health loss to drought occurrences and agricultural damage. In particular, rising temperatures may bring about a great decrease in food resources. Interstellar might soon become a reality - people might soon have to seek ways to secure food resources that have greatly decreased due to extreme heat. Even worse, as temperature rises, the damage to crop yields increases not proportionally but exponentially. Motivated by the notion that present-day society and agricultural systems are vulnerable to hot weather, Battisti, an expert in climate change, asserted that recent examples of fatal heat waves and consequent food crises can serve as case studies for a potential future norm.
Furthermore, heat waves can be deadly to the elderly and those in poor health. Indeed, the number of people who are suffering from heat stroke has increased 2.1 times compared to the previous year. According to the KMA, heat wave is ranked first, along with typhoons and heavy snowfall, as a natural disaster that causes the most deaths in South Korea. As heat waves become stronger, related damages are likely to grow even greater.
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Just like typhoons and floods, abnormal hot weather should also be regarded as a fatal natural disaster. As we can see from the fact that ten people died due to the recent heat waves, hot weather is one of the likeliest calamities that people encounter. It is time to act. The South Korean government began an effort to reduce greenhouse gases in 1997 by participating in the Kyoto Protocol. Yet, South Korea’s greenhouse gas emission is still higher than global average, which calls for more effective measures. At the same time, the government should also take action to prevent the damages caused by heat waves, and take a lead in related global agreements to create a safer future for us and for our posterity. 

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