The summer of 2022 and its extreme heatwaves may have caused over 70,000 premature excess deaths across Europe, researchers say.
More deaths than previously thought
The new study, by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), supported by La Caixa, and published in the medical journal The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, examined daily temperature and mortality data in nearly 150 different parts of Europe across 16 countries.
The same team had previously found that just under 63,000 excess deaths had taken place due to heat-related factors in 2022, but that figure has now been revised upwards in the light of daily and weekly data models.
Need to look at granular data
Though the previous study looked at a greater number of areas (823 regions) across a greater number of European countries (35), part of the problem with the old approach was that monthly and fortnightly data is not granular enough and is less useful for “estimating the short-term effects of ambient temperatures,” explained Joan Ballester Claramunt, ISGlobal researcher.
The new, different way of aggregating the data still ensures the representation of the entire European population of over 400 million people and will help to “inform public policies such as, for example, the activation of emergency plans for reducing the impact of heatwaves and cold spells,” Ballester added.
What harm can heatwaves cause?
2022 saw record worldwide temperatures and 2023 is already set to have broken those, with June, July and August this year recorded as the warmest summer season ever globally. What’s worse, the current El Niño cycle is expected to contribute to exacerbate going forward, as its effects continue to be felt in the year after a surge.
As well as causing environmental catastrophes such as wildfires and droughts, the temperature spikes (as well as winter cold spells) can be particularly dangerous for groups of people with pre-existing conditions or “co-morbidities”. In summer, they are more vulnerable to the stress of trying to keep cool and can quickly suffer heatstroke and exhaustion.
Studies such as this help inform government policies, emergency response planning, prevention and education strategies and funding around public health, as well as triggering re-thinks of contributing factors, such as how the design of public spaces and tree coverage affect temperatures in different localities.
Excess deaths can be reduced with better access to cool areas or air conditioning, as well as sufficient clean drinking water, shelter from the sun, and being able to avoid physical exertion at the hottest times of day.