“Fatal” Heatwaves could kill 90,000 Europeans per year by 2100
Deadly heatwaves could kill 90,000 Europeans each year by the end of the century if nothing is done, according to the European Environment Agency.
What exactly are heatwaves?
Heatwaves are periods of deadly heat that usually last a week or more and can cause dehydration and exhaustion, which can cause dizziness and fainting.
When a system of high atmospheric pressure moves into an area and lasts for two or more days, or when high pressure air settles high in the air and causes hot air to sink, fatal heatwaves form. As hot air sinks, it forms a bubble that acts as a seal, trapping heat near the ground.
The European Heatwave of 2003, one of Europe’s most deadly heatwaves, claimed the lives of over 20,000 people. The extreme heat is expected to be the warmest in up to 500 years.
Climate change, as an intense fuel for heatwaves, is currently affecting all European regions more than anywhere else on the planet. For example, extensive killing heatwaves and drought have affected large parts of Europe, fueling wildfires, windstorms, heavy rain and floods, sea level rise, and storm surges in 2022. According to the European Forest Fire Information System, Spain has been the most severely affected so far, with over 283,000 hectares burned (an area slightly larger than Luxembourg), followed by Romania (150,735 ha), Portugal (86,631 ha), France (62,102 ha), and Italy (42,835 ha).
Heatwaves are becoming still deadlier as they are getting hotter and more frequent as a result of climate change. This is true for the vast majority of land areas, as confirmed by the United Nations’ global panel of climate scientists (IPCC). Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet by about 1.2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times.
We can also feel that hotter-than-usual days and nights are becoming more common as the Earth’s climate warms. This also indicates that we can expect heatwaves in the future to gradually become more frequent, intense, and fatal.
EEA’s report on heatwaves
Without adaptation measures and under a scenario of 3 degrees Celsius global warming by 2100, EEA clearly stated that 90,000 Europeans could die from extreme heat each year.
“With 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, this is reduced to 30,000 deaths annually,” said the agency.
But a good thing is that countries in the 2015 Paris Agreement have agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a target that the world is on track to miss based on current emissions trends.
But, maybe due to the lack of sincere implementation of the agreement, 29,000 Europeans died from heat-related causes between 1980 and 2020, as the agency stated, citing insurance data.
And, the World Health Organization data shows that at least 15,000 people have died in Europe this year as a result of the hot weather.
However, the agency added that due to more frequent heatwaves caused by climate change, an aging population, and increased urbanization, this figure is likely to rise in the coming years, particularly in the continent’s south.
The three months of this year, June-August, were the hottest in Europe since records began, with the average temperature in the period being about 1.34°C higher than the 1991-2020 season average, and nearly 0.4°C higher than the previous warmest European summer, which occurred just one year earlier, in 2021. And the unusually high temperatures caused the continent’s worst drought since the Middle Ages.
Aside from the dangers of deadly heatwaves, the EEA warned that climate change could make Europe more vulnerable to infectious diseases spread by mosquito bites, such as malaria and dengue fever.
And, as sea temperatures rise, the bacteria that cause cholera, such as Vibrio cholerae, become more prevalent, particularly along the Baltic Sea’s coastlines.
EEA calls for action
The EEA issued a call to action, stating that “nearly all deaths associated with high temperatures are preventable in the European context.” According to the EEA, reducing the health effects of heatwaves requires a wide range of solutions, including effective heat health action plans, urban greening, appropriate building design and construction, and adjusting working times and conditions.
Heatwaves causes and possible prevention
If greenhouse gas emissions, the most significant factor behind the production of fatal heatwaves, are not significantly reduced, daily high and low temperatures in most areas will rise by at least 5 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century, rising to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the late century. The National Climate Assessment predicts 20–30 more days with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in most areas by mid-century.
On the other hand, the global average temperature in 2022 is expected to be 1.15 [1.02 to 1.28] degrees Celsius higher than the 1850–1900 average. From 2015 to 2022, the eight warmest years on record are expected. La Nia conditions, which refers to the periodic cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific, have prevailed since late 2020 and are forecast to last until the end of 2022.
Experts advise people who are experiencing extreme heat to stay hydrated and avoid strenuous outdoor activities.
Heat health plans in brief:
- When temperatures and humidity are high, spend as much time as possible in air-conditioned spaces, whether at home or in public.
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids during heatwaves.
- Consume fewer calories.
- Wear comfortable, light clothing.
- If you’re going to be outside, look for some shade.
[Note: Do apply the mentioned health plan only after consulting your physician about your existing health condition.]
Installing cool and green roofs, as well as cool pavement, can help reduce the urban heat island effect. Similarly, planting trees to provide shade and cool the air through evapotranspiration, as well as pursuing energy efficiency to reduce demand on the electricity grid, particularly during heatwaves, can help to reduce heatwave production and impact.
Because greenhouse gases play a significant role in the formation of heatwaves, a study published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences on July 22, 2022, stated that deadly heatwaves in the western part of North America killed nearly 1,500 people. The study also reported that human activities caused heatwaves by emitting greenhouse gases.
As discussed above, heatwaves pose a fatal threat to not only 90,000 Europeans per year, but the entire world. The previously mentioned data on rapid global temperature rise clearly indicates that heatwaves are occurring more frequently and severely than ever before in all parts of the world, particularly in Europe and North America.
To avoid a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we must reduce carbon emissions as soon as possible, if not completely. Otherwise, we must brace ourselves for more heatwaves, which will cause thousands, if not millions, of casualties each year at an increasing rate for many years to come.