Europe recently faced the scorching wrath of not one, but two sweltering heatwaves that swept across the continent. This left communities grappling with unprecedented temperatures. Dubbed Cerberus and Charon, these heatwaves captured attention not only for their intensity but also for the absence of an internationally-agreed system to name such extreme weather events.

Cerberus, the first of the two heatwaves, took its name from the mythological creature known as the “hound of Hades” in Greek and Roman mythology. Depicted with three heads, gnashing teeth, and a tail resembling a hissing serpent, Cerberus guarded the gates of the underworld, preventing anyone from escaping the realm of the dead. This formidable beast seemed an appropriate inspiration for a heatwave that held Europe in its fiery grip. Described as blistering and engulfing, Cerberus unleashed scorching temperatures across the continent, leading to heat-related health issues, wildfires, and strains on infrastructure.

Charon, the second heatwave, added to the discomfort, compounding communities’ challenges and intensifying concerns about the changing climate.

The absence of an internationally-agreed system for naming heatwaves is a point of contention among meteorologists and experts. Unlike large storms such as hurricanes and typhoons, which are named by weather services worldwide, heatwaves have yet to be afforded a standardised naming convention. This creates a disparity in communication and poses potential challenges when raising public awareness, preparedness, and coordination among relevant agencies.

The current naming systems for tropical cyclones, like hurricanes and typhoons, have proven to be effective tools for meteorologists and the public alike. Names enable meteorological organisations to efficiently track, monitor, and communicate information about their development, intensity, and potential threats. The named storms facilitate public awareness and preparedness efforts, enabling individuals and communities to take appropriate measures in advance.

Tropical cyclones select names from predetermined lists recycled every six years. This ensures consistency and allows historical comparisons. A similar approach could be adopted for naming heatwaves, with a list of names specifically chosen for their relevance and resonance with the public. This method would ensure a systematic and equitable approach to naming, avoiding potential biases or controversies.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the international body responsible for storm naming, expresses reservations about naming heatwaves. The WMO argues that heatwaves differ significantly from storms, as their science of forecasting and warnings is still evolving and not consistently effective. They suggest that the focus should remain on improving heatwave prediction models and developing robust early warning systems.

However, some experts disagree with the WMO’s stance, pointing out the importance of naming heatwaves to draw attention to their often underestimated and misunderstood health risks. They argue that naming heatwaves can help raise awareness, drive public discourse, and foster a proactive approach to mitigating their impacts.

In June 2022, Seville, Spain, launched a pilot programme to identify heatwaves affecting their region. This localised effort aimed to improve communication and preparedness among residents.

One notable heatwave named through this programme was Zoe. Reaching category three intensity, Zoe scorched southern Spain the following month, with temperatures soaring to 43°C (109°F). Zoe’s naming helped create awareness and ensure a focused response to extreme heat conditions in the region.

In recent years, the Italian weather website iLMeteo has been at the forefront of naming heatwaves using mythological figures. The website assigns names to high-pressure systems that generate extreme heat in Europe. The Italian Meteorological Society said that the naming of heatwaves by iLMeteo was unofficial and sensationalistic within Italy. They confirmed that the society does not name heatwaves officially.

One challenge in naming heat waves is distinguishing one event from another. Heatwaves can merge and span across international borders as weather systems develop, making it challenging to assign distinct names or coordinate naming across different regions.

Heatwave intensity and associated impacts within a single event add to the challenge. Assigning multiple names or coordinating naming across different regions may cause confusion and divisions rather than facilitate effective communication and response.

John Nairns, senior extreme heat advisor at the WMO, highlights the importance of ensuring valuable information about heatwave intensity is not overshadowed by multiple names. The focus should be on providing accurate and actionable information to the public and avoiding confusion that could arise from a proliferation of names.

Despite concerns and challenges, mythological names for heatwaves have gained popularity. These names often convey a message beyond simple monikers. They evoke the significance of heatwaves in the context of climate change and the broader impacts on society and the environment.