Can naming heat waves call more attention to them and save lives? Seville, Spain, will be the world’s first laboratory to test this concept in 2022, when the city launches a new initiative to name and rank heat waves, much like weather forecasters do for hurricanes.

Public health officials have long sought to raise awareness of heat waves, which are the leading cause of weather-related deaths in many parts of the world. The problem is more pressing now as climate change increases the intensity, frequency and duration of extreme heat events.

Seville’s new effort, in partnership with the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, aims to raise the public recognition of heat waves and more urgently communicate their threat. Public health and climate experts have made the case that naming heat waves, which are invisible and abstract, makes them more concrete and thus easier to identify, act upon and share information about.

At a news conference Monday, Seville Mayor Juan Espadas said the initiative will make heat wave information more useful and easier to understand.

“We are very happy Seville is part of it because it is very much in line with the profile of the city of Seville, a city which is fighting for sustainability and against climate change and a city that is clearly helping to adapt to the current climate change effects,” Espadas said.

Seville is a city of nearly 700,000 people in the south of Spain and popular with tourists. It’s in the country’s Andalusia region, which is among the nation’s hottest. On Aug. 14, the city of Montoro, about 100 miles to the northeast, soared to 117.3 degrees (47.3 Celsius), Spain’s highest temperature on record.

The exceptional temperature occurred amid a punishing heat wave over southern Europe and northern Africa, which established scores of records. Syracuse, Italy, skyrocketed to 119.8 degrees (48.8 Celsius), which, if validated, would set a new all-time heat record for Europe.

The heat wave was among many that baked the Northern Hemisphere over the summer, including an unprecedented event in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada in late June.

The Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation, with a mission to “reach one billion people with resilience solutions to climate change, migration, and security challenges by 2030,” is driving the push to name heat waves. In August 2020, it formed the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a coalition of emergency-response organizations, science research hubs, cities and nonprofits confronting the threat of urban heat for vulnerable groups.

Kathy Baughman-McLeod, director of the Arsht-Rockefeller Center, praised Espadas for being “the first mayor and first climate leader anywhere in the world” to launch such a heat wave naming and ranking initiative.

The city of Seville will lead focus group testing to come up with heat wave names and will work with the alliance and its team of meteorological, public health and social-marketing experts to develop the categorization system. Seville will also engage AEMET, Spain’s meteorological agency, the Spanish Agency for Climate Change and two universities in the initiative.

“By categorizing heat waves based on their projected health impact, Mayor Espadas is arming residents with the power of lifesaving information and actions to prevent harm,” Baughman-McLeod said at the news conference.

The categories established will serve as a trigger for different policy measures, such as opening cooling centers and adding hospital staff.

Larry Kalkstein, an expert on extreme heat who has developed heat health warning systems used in numerous cities worldwide, is serving as the alliance’s chief heat scientist to guide technical matters.

The rankings “will guide urban stakeholders and policymakers to institute proper interventions based upon the category of the heat wave,” Kalkstein wrote in an email. “[O]ur system will be based upon health outcomes and not strictly meteorology."

Baughman-McLeod said the alliance intends to share and apply lessons learned from Seville to “other cities facing heat’s wrath.” The alliance has stated that it seeks to make naming and ranking heat waves “standard practice” around the world.

Amid sweltering heat and a siege of fires this summer, scientists in Greece also expressed interest in the concept.

“The whole idea of making heat waves more visible by naming and categorizing them in terms of severity would be a turning point,” Eleni Myrivili, a senior adviser for resilience to Athens, told the Guardian. “It would help people understand the danger that is looming while enabling decision-makers to trigger policies that would better protect them.”

In parts of Europe, naming winter storms has shown the potential benefits of creating names for weather events.

A pilot initiative in Ireland and Britain to name winter storms in 2015-16 and 2016-17 was considered so successful that it was made permanent.

“We have collected evidence that storm naming has helped raise the profile of severe weather and increase public engagement and action, and thus we have decided to formally adopt storm naming as part of our warning system,” Dee Cotgrove, previously head of communication for Britain’s Meteorological Office, wrote in a paper for the American Meteorological Society in 2018.