The Lamen

61,000 People Died From The European Heatwave In 2022.

Europe has experienced a devastating summer more than once, but experts suggest that it is yet to see the worst.
A bar graph for the breast cancer rates among women of different ethnicities.

Physicists have made it pretty clear: the past of the cosmos was hotter and the future will be colder. But even the extreme heat felt today is significantly hotter than what the “early humans” experienced. And the general consensus is, climate change is the one big thing to blame.

via Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash

Published on Jul 11, 2023

Only a few weeks into the summer and hundreds of millions are enduring sweltering heat waves. As scorching heat raises alarm across the world, a new study published in Nature Medicine this Monday suggests that over 61,000 people died from Europe’s record-breaking summer last year.

Data-driven: Over the 35 European countries analyzed, the summer of 2022 was the warmest ever on record, over 0.4°C warmer than the summer of the previous year and 1.4°C hotter than average.

  • The most intense heat wave was observed between July 18 and 24, accounting for 11,637 (nearly one-fifth) of these heat-related deaths.
  • Women were found to be more at risk, with an estimated 63 percent more heat-related deaths in women compared to men. In addition, age served as a significant determinant of death, with an estimated 36,848 deaths occurring in people aged over 80.
  • However, the study found that men in the younger age group were more likely to die.

The highest heat-related mortality rates were found in Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal, which have been linked with the effect of the Mediterranean, which scientists suggest is a literal hot spot.

  • The lack of surface water limits the summertime precipitation in the Mediterranean, which makes incoming radiation preferentially work towards increasing the temperature. This combined with high atmospheric pressure conditions can lead to heat waves that persist for weeks.
  • Following historic multi-year droughts, the early-season heat waves observed in the Mediterranean region this year are strongly influenced by human-induced climate change, said an international team of scientists in a recent report.
  • “As the global temperature rises, the temperature distribution shifts toward higher values, and heat waves become more intense and more frequent. Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, however, will be hit particularly hard. The reason for this is related to the land-atmosphere feedbacks,” said Alexandre Tuel, the Head of Atmospheric Research at Geolabe, to MIT News.

Noteworthy: European countries prepared the so-called “heat health action plan,” developed after the impact of the deadly heat wave of 2003, but researchers highlight that last year’s deaths indicate that these strategies are not sufficient to prevent mass casualties.

  • While the summer of 2003 was an “exceptionally rare event,” the study suggests that 2022 temperatures were not exceptional, and could have even been anticipated.
  • Even after putting in place a range of measures, laws, and policies, Europe’s governments have struggled to adequately plan for the rising mercury, with Munich-based doctor and chair of the German Alliance for Climate Protection and Health Martin Hermann telling Politico that “we don’t know when the next big thing is coming and we are not prepared.”
  • “It’s an indication to those countries that they need to review their plans and see what is not working,” said Chloe Brimicombe, a climate scientist at Austria’s University of Graz, to Reuters.

Populations in Southern Europe will be more frequently exposed to extreme summer conditions and experience greater heat-related deaths in the future, researchers suggest. As a consequence, they suggest reevaluation and strengthening of heat surveillance platforms, prevention plans, and long-term coping strategies.

A map showing extreme heat and temperature anomalies across Europe in July 2023.

European land temperatures have increased faster than the global mean surface temperatures between 2013 and 2022, exhibiting anomalous behavior due to a combination of its geography and the impact of human-induced climate change. Some estimates suggest that with a 3°C warming above pre-industrial levels, 90,000 people in Europe could die from extreme heat annually.

Graphic by EFFIS

How Heat Waves Kill Humans: A Minute-by-Minute Account.

Our bodies are in a constant state of heat exchange, maintaining an internal temperature of 37°C (98.6°F). Problems really start when there’s not enough heat or too much of it, and our body eventually cannot keep up.

Heat is the greatest weather-related killer in the United States, and here’s an account of what your body goes through when exposed to high temperatures for extended durations.

  1. The initial response begins as your hypothalamus responds to the increased heat by signaling the sweat glands to perspire – resulting in evaporative cooling.
  2. Significant fluid loss occurs due to prolonged exposure to such temperatures, and dehydration kicks in. You become unable to regulate temperature effectively and feel dizzy or lightheaded.
  3. Your heart rate increases as your body tries to cope with the increased temperature by pumping more blood to the skin’s surface to cool it down. For every 0.5°C (1°F) rise in core temperature, a typical person’s heart rate goes up by about 10 beats per minute.
  4. Heat cramps kick in due to the continued dehydration and electrolyte loss, causing painful, involuntary contractions in the legs, arms, or abdomen.
  5. Your body experiences oxidative stress, heat-induced inflammation, and metabolic disturbances – progressing toward a stage when every bodily system begins to shut down.
  6. Heat exhaustion eventually progresses to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition that occurs when your core body temperature rises above 40°C. The hypothalamus fails to continue coping with the excessive heat, and results in manifestations like a rapid pulse and breathing, loss of balance, disorientation, nausea, and dizziness.
  7. Your body swiftly progresses into impaired cellular function, dysfunctions of the central nervous system, cardiovascular collapse, and multiple-organ failure, eventually leading to death.

A study from 2017 suggests that 30 percent of the world’s population is exposed to climate conditions exceeding the deadly threshold for at least 20 days a year. In addition, it predicts that this number would increase to 48 percent by 2100 even under the scenario of “drastic reductions” of greenhouse emissions.

Coping With Extreme Heat.

Heat-related illness quickly progresses from moderate discomfort to a life-threatening situation. Humans can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to get acclimatized to increased heat: with adaptations like more frequent sweating and decreased electrolyte loss.

However, there will always remain an evolutionary limit to heat acclimatization when conditions go beyond what normal human physiology can endure – which means that you need to learn how to cope with extreme heat.

  • Keep your babies and pets out of the sunlight on warm days.
  • If air conditioning is unavailable, visit a cooling center during the hours when the temperature peaks.
  • Wear loose, lightweight clothing, wear a wide enough hat, find shade, and limit your time outside.
  • Avoid intense or even moderately-intense activity during the midday heat.
  • Check on your family members and neighbors, especially adults with heart or lung conditions.
  • Eat lighter meals, limit your alcohol, and take a daytime nap if possible.
  • Learn to identify the risks of heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and other related illnesses.

A guidebook to help city officials manage heat waves issued by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies includes policy recommendations like:

  • gender-based risk and vulnerability assessments and consequent planning
  • development of heat island maps to identify which parts of a city are the hottest due to environment and infrastructure
  • cooperation between meteorological, healthcare, and emergency care departments
  • collaboration between external partners, including city residents, media outlets, NGOs, schools, childcare providers, private sector partners, and other key institutions

The effects of human-induced climate change are expected to be felt even more strongly this year, as the summer coincides with El Niño, the effects of which have already been felt in Asia and Africa, with climate change reportedly making the Horn of Africa drought “100 times more likely.”