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Summer 2022 heatwaves killed 61,000 people in Europe

Over 61,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the heatwaves that swept across Europe last year, and without efforts to shield the most vulnerable we might see a similar toll this year.

Summer 2022 was the hottest season on record in Europe, with temperatures reaching new extremes around the continent, especially in western and central regions. Europe also saw high levels of excess deaths over this time, but exactly how many were due to the heat was unclear.

“Extreme heat is one of the most deadly natural hazards,” says Vikki Thompson at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, because it exacerbates pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Joan Ballester at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain and his colleagues investigated this link by looking at the number of deaths logged by the European statistical office Eurostat for 35 European countries, along with temperature records.

The team found that between 30 May and 4 September last year, 61,672 deaths were related to heat – with the largest numbers in Italy, Spain, Germany and France. After adjusting for population size, the team found that heat-related deaths were disproportionately high in Mediterranean nations including Spain, Italy and Greece.

“Despite the fact that the temperature anomalies were the same in France and in Spain, the mortalities were radically different,” says Ballester. “This may be partly due to socioeconomic factors.”

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Ballester hopes this study will raise more awareness of the deadly effects of heat. With 2023 already shaping up to be one of the hottest years on record, we might expect similar excess deaths this year, though Ballester declined to make a specific prediction. “Given the same vulnerability, we can expect a given number of heat-related deaths,” he says.

Read more:

England's August heatwave was deadlier than record 40°C days in July

“Events like this are likely to become more common and severe, thus preparedness needs to be improved to reduce avoidable deaths, minimise the economic impacts of future heatwaves and shield the most vulnerable from the worst of the effects,” says Candice Howarth at the London School of Economics, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Thompson, who also wasn’t involved, expresses a similar opinion. “Fortunately, impacts of heat on human health can be reduced through education and policy changes. The annual heat-related mortality numbers in this study show that this is already happening – although 2022 was the hottest European summer on record, deaths were lower than in [the heatwave of] 2003,” she says.

Journal reference:

Nature Medicine DOI: 10.1038/s41591-023-02419-z

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