New research suggests that up to 61,000 people may have died due to 2022’s summer heat in what was the hottest summer season ever recorded. That’s the equivalent of the whole population of Faro, in Portugal. Meanwhile, the prognosis for this summer is not good either.
European health institute researchers studied heat-related excess deaths across 35 countries and published the findings in the monthly clinical journal Nature Medicine. They point out that mean European temperatures exceeded the 1991–2020 period baseline uninterruptedly in every week of summer 2022.
1. Who suffered most?
Describing Europe as a hotspot, due to warming 1°C above global increases, the study’s authors note that while Italy, Spain and Germany saw the greatest number of summer 2022 deaths in raw figures, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal’s mortality rates were worse. The data was controlled to eliminate the lingering effects of the pandemic. The Mediterranean region, parts of Bulgaria and Romania were particularly badly stricken.
Regional temperature anomaly and heat-related mortality rate during the summer of 2022
Heat stroke is a major killer in hot conditions and women were affected more than men. Older people and those with underlying cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are particularly vulnerable. Drawing out the implications for policy makers, the study recommends re-evaluating and bolstering heat surveillance, prevention plans and long-term adaptation strategies.
Joan Ballester a professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and one of the study’s co-authors, explained: “The Mediterranean is affected by desertification, heatwaves are amplified during summer just because of these drier conditions.”
2. What strategies are already being tried?
A deathly heat wave back in 2003 triggered policy makers to look at how to mitigate the risks of rising summer temperatures. Ranking heatwaves by threat level (like hurricanes) is one approach applied in Athens. Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Madrid are all looking at various types of natural ventilation and cooling systems, while Australia and Spain are using adapted emergency responses.
Many cities worldwide are looking at tree cover and green spaces. Research published in The Lancet in spring 2023, used cutting-edge modelling of 93 European cities by an international team. It indicated that heat-related deaths could be cut by 39.5% if cities doubled their typical tree cover, from just under 15% currently, to 30%.
3. What about 2023?
3 July 2023 marked the hottest day ever recorded on the planet and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced the onset of El Niño conditions. Confirming a series of grim climate milestones, the UN body announced the first week in July 2023 as the hottest week on record for the planet as a whole, and June 2023 was the hottest June on record.
As well as effects such as excess deaths, extreme temperatures cause wildfires, drought, violent storms and flooding.
“The number of deaths is increasing every year,” German health minister Karl Lauterbach said, according to Reuters. “It’s relatively easy to save them if we have a plan.”