Cerberus: Why has Europe begun naming heatwaves?

Rome has been hit hard by the heatwave. (PA)
Rome has been hit hard by the heatwave. (PA)

Italy and the Mediterranean are currently being gripped by a heatwave that could see the European temperature record broken any day.

For the first time European meteorologists have chosen to name the heatwave, calling it Cerberus.

The highest temperature ever recorded in Europe was in Syracuse, Sicily in August 2021 at 48.8C, with temperatures in recent days hitting 48.C.

President of the Italian Meteorological Society, Professor Luca Mercalli, said: "We know that there will be temperatures above 40C or 45C.

Read more: Cerberus heatwave: Southern Europe faces record 48.8C temperatures as first life lost

"We could get close to the record. Either way, the levels will be very high.”

Italy is the worst hit by the heatwave and it was the Italian meteorological society that decided to give the heatwave a name last week.

Cerberus specifically means the African anticyclone from the Sahara desert which hit Italy on Monday and is the cause of the extremely high temperatures.

Why name a heatwave?

Naming storms and hurricanes has been an adopted practice for decades and the same reasons are being applied to heatwaves.

Essentially meteorologists name weather events to raise awareness and improve communication about the coming threat.

By simply calling it 'Storm X' rather than 'the coming storm' meteorologists, governments and emergency services are able to better communicate their response.

All of this also helps to raise public awareness because named storms often get discussed more in the media and online.

With the rise in recent years of near-annual record-breaking heatwaves and the ever-increasing awareness of climate change, meteorologists have been calling for the same methodology to be applied to heatwaves.

Heatwaves are both more deadly and harder to see than a storm, so raising public awareness about them is important.

Read more: Cerberus heatwave: European data shows land temperatures are scorching - and it's about to get much worse

Tourists have had to take shelter in Rome. (PA)
Tourists have had to take shelter in Rome. (PA)

Promoting the idea in 2020, climate communicator Susan Joy Hassol told Science News: "Naming heat waves will make something invisible more visible.

"It also makes it more real and concrete, rather than abstract."

Several local governments have taken up the ideas in recent years.

The first ever named heatwave, 'Zoe', was given its name by the local authority of Seville in the south of Spain last year.

The pilot programme was launched in June 2022 with the main aim of making residents aware of the threat of the heatwave.

Seville named another heatwave Yago in June this year when temperatures went above 40C.

When discussing Yago Mayor Juan Espadas said: "We are the first city in the world to take a step that will help us plan and take measures when this type of weather event happens."

Why Cerberus specifically?

Usually, when naming a weather event, meteorologists stick by an alphabet system, so the first big storm of the year will be given a name with 'A', then the next 'B', and so on.

But Cerberus is not the third heatwave to be named this year, instead, the name relates to the three climatic zones that Italy will be divided into during the extreme heat.

The name Cerberus originated from Dante's Inferno and was given to the three-headed dog that guarded the third circle of hell.

While temperatures right now in Italy are extremely high, in the north (which is dominated by the Alps) the mercury is only slightly above average.

Locals have been handing out free water all across Italy. (PA)
Locals have been handing out free water all across Italy. (PA)

In the centre of the country, including Rome, temperatures are much higher than usual but are not the hottest.

The worst of the effects are being felt on the Mediterranean Islands of Sicily and Sardina, as well as along the southern western coast of the mainland.

"Metaphorically, the three heads indicate the three main climatic zones into which Italy will be divided," meteorologist Stefano Rossi told La Stampa.