One hundred thousand deaths in a year: Europe tops mortality league for extreme heat

One hundred thousand deaths in a year: Europe tops mortality league for extreme heat

By Will Bugler

Whilst the rising death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate the front pages, a new study highlights the growing risk from another deadly phenomenon: extreme heat. The research, published in The Lancet medical journal, shows that Europeans have the highest mortality rate from heatwaves, combined with the highest number of premature deaths caused by air pollution.

Like COVID, this poses a particular threat to older people and those with underlying health conditions. In 2018, the EU recorded 104,000 heat-related deaths amongst older people, over one third of the global total. The year saw unprecedented heat across the continent, with northern Scandinavia experiencing temperatures over 5˚C warmer than the 1981-2010 average.

“Climate change induced shocks are claiming lives, damaging health and disrupting livelihoods in all parts of the world right now. That means that no continent, country or community remains untouched,” said Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown.

A trend set to continue

Taking steps now to prepare for hotter temperatures is vital in order to minimise the risks to vulnerable populations. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), Europe is warming faster than the global average, with a mean annual temperature over European land areas in the last decade 1.7 to 1.9 °C warmer than during the pre-industrial period.

“The four warmest years in Europe since instrumental records began were 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019. Many parts of Europe experienced an exceptional heat wave in June and July 2019, during which many all-time national temperature records were broken.” Notes the EEA.

This trend will continue in the coming decades. Projections from the EURO-CORDEX initiative suggest that temperatures across European land areas will continue to increase throughout this century at a higher rate than the global average. Land temperatures in different European regions are projected to increase further by 1.4 to 4.2 °C under the RCP4.5 scenario (by 2071-2100, compared to 1971-2000).

A systemic approach

As the Lancet study shows, rising temperatures pose a direct threat to human health, especially when considered alongside other issues such as air pollution. However, gradual increases in average temperatures and extreme heatwaves will have far reaching implications for countries around the world. Infrastructure failure, agricultural production, water availability, workforce productivity and wildfire frequency are just a few examples of how temperature rises will impact our lives.

As COVID-19 has shown, it is often the most vulnerable in society that bear the greatest burden. “The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the current ability of healthcare and wider health systems to cope with the sorts of future health shocks that climate change may generate,” said Professor Hugh Montgomery, Lancet Countdown co-chair and an intensive care doctor, based at University College London.

The 2020 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: responding to converging crises is available here.


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