Weather and climate extremes, such as heat waves (HWs), have become more frequent due to climate change, resulting in negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts in many regions of the world. The high vulnerability of South African society to the impacts of warm extreme temperatures makes the study of the effect of climate change on future HWs necessary across the country. We investigated the projected effect of climate change on future of South Africa with a focus on HWs using an ensemble of regional climate model downscalings obtained from the Conformal Cubic Atmospheric Model (CCAM) for the periods 2010–2039, 2040–2069, and 2070–2099, with 1983–2012 as the historical baseline. Simulations were performed under the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5 (moderate greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration) and 8.5 (high GHG concentration) greenhouse gas emission scenarios. We found that the 30-year period average maximum temperatures may rise by up to 6 °C across much of the interior of South Africa by 2070–2099 with respect to 1983–2012, under a high GHG concentration. Simulated HW thresholds for all ensemble members were similar and spatially consistent with observed HW thresholds. Under a high GHG concentration, short lasting HWs (average of 3–4 days) along the coastal areas are expected to increase in frequency in the future climate, however the coasts will continue to experience HWs of relatively shorter duration compared to the interior regions. HWs lasting for shorter duration are expected to be more frequent when compared to HWs of longer durations (over two weeks). The north-western part of South Africa is expected to have the most drastic increase in HWs occurrences across the country. Whilst the central interior is not projected to experience pronounced increases in HW frequency, HWs across this region are expected to last longer under future climate change. Consistent patterns of change are projected for HWs under moderate GHG concentrations, but the changes are smaller in amplitude. Increases in HW frequency and duration across South Africa may have significant impacts on human health, economic activities, and livelihoods in vulnerable communities.
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