The Great Russian Heatwave of 2010
Tue, Aug 10 2010

The Event

Following a dry and warm start to the Russian summer, and the worst drought in western Russian since 1972, the Great Russian Heatwave began at the end of June. This persistent and highly unusual climatic event covers a large portion of western Russia larger than approximately 2 million square kilometres, or an area about the size of Western Australia. For July, the average temperature was approximately 7–8°C above average, with individual days setting multiple records for extreme heat.

At Moscow Observatory, a run of 28 consecutive days (unbroken as of 10 August) above 30°C began on 14 July, including separate runs of eight and six consecutive days above 35°C. The previous record of 36.8°C, set in August 1920, has been broken six times, peaking at 38.2°C on 29 July, while 39°C was reached at two suburban sites. Nights have also been exceptionally warm, with 22 out of 26 nights not falling below 20°C. To place this in perspective, the average maximum temperature in Moscow during July is 24°C, and in 2009 there was not a single day above 30°C, or night above 20°C. Such records have culminated in what is now touted as a “one in 1000 year” event.

The event has extended over a wide area and has set national records in four countries: Russia (44.0°C), Ukraine (41.3°C), Belarus (38.9°C) and Finland (37.2°C).

At the time of writing, while the most intense phase of the heatwave appears to be over, the extended hot spell is continuing, with maximum temperatures below 30°C not expected until about 17 August at the earliest.

The Impacts

The heatwave and preceding drought have been responsible for an outbreak of forest and peat fires that remain burning and out of control. The combination of the severe heat, forest fires and subsequent pollution has had a disastrous impact on human health with the Moscow registry office reporting an additional 330 deaths per day due to the heat in Moscow alone. The death toll has been put at 15,000 so far, but may be much higher. There have been many reported deaths from the forest fires and reports of 1600 drownings of people attempting to cool off in the blistering conditions. In addition, the fires have reportedly destroyed about 20% of Russia’s crops.

Comparison to the 2003 Western European Heatwave

Previous to the Great Russian Heatwave, the 2003 Western European Heatwave was widely known to be the worst in European history. However, already, the weather anomalies experienced in 2003 pale in comparison to the current conditions in Russia. Average conditions in western Europe in August 2003 were around 4–5°C above average for the month, while much of western Russia, particularly the area around Moscow, is experienced average conditions at least 7°C above normal for the month of July. The difference mostly stems from the duration of each heatwave. The western Europe heatwave peaked with conditions similar to the Russian heatwave (7–8°C above normal) for a ten day period, with relatively mild temperatures at the end of August dragging the monthly average down. In contrast, the large anomalies in western Russia (approximately 7–8°C) have been ongoing for one month and have continued to the time of writing (12 August). With an estimated death toll from the 2003 heatwave of between 40,000–50,000, the Great Russian Heatwave now looks set to become one of the worst, if not the worst, in European history.

The Great Russian Heatwave and flooding in Pakistan – are they linked?

The ongoing heatwave in Russia and flooding in Pakistan actually appear to be linked to the same large-scale weather pattern. This link is causing monsoonal rains to penetrate into Pakistan where they normally wouldn’t at such intensity (e.g. 340 mm in two days at Peshawar) and has also been linked to excessive rain over the Three Gorges Dam in China. More information can be found in an article in The Guardian¹ by Dr Peter Stott, Head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution at the UK Met Office. Dr Kevin Trenberth from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research has also commented on a potential link between the two. For links to both articles, see the bottom of this document.


Heatwaves in Australia

Australia is no stranger to heatwave conditions and these can have a similarly devastating affect on the Australian population. A heatwave in Adelaide in 2008 set a new record for the duration of a heatwave event when it experienced 15 consecutive days above 35˚C – seven days more than the previous record heatwave duration. While three successive days in Melbourne at the end of January 2009, prior to the Black Saturday bushfires, exceeded 43˚C. Prior to this, Melbourne had never previously seen three days in a row reach 42˚C, let alone 43˚C. On these three days, Melbourne recorded 374 extra deaths in the city. These do not include the deaths associated with the Black Saturday bushfires.

Is this climate change?

When examining the impacts of climate change, we are examining the changes to the climate, not the weather. Think of this as looking at changes in “averages”. So, instead of looking at a single heatwave, we want to know if the number of heatwaves, their severity and/or duration is changing. And, if these changes are occurring, can we attribute these to human activity. As the Great Russian Heatwave is a single event we cannot say “This is climate change”. We can, however, look at the curious fact that the frequency, severity and duration of heatwaves like the one in Russia are increasing around the globe, including in Australia. Such changes are consistent with the hypothesis of human induced climate change, which is expected to bring about more frequent, hotter and longer lasting heatwaves.


More information on the Great Russian Heatwave can be found at the following links:


This document was prepared by Dr Ailie Gallant, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne