More than 52,000 Europeans Died from Heat in Summer 2003

[This is a guest post by Janet Larsen writing for the Earth Policy Institute. It's not as upbeat as what we usually publish, but it sets the record straight on an important event and contains a warning for the future. -Ed.]

Following a string of high heat days and meteorologists' warnings that this summer could be another scorcher, European public health officials and politicians are revisiting the devastating heat wave of 2003. The severely hot weather that withered crops, dried up rivers, and fueled fires that summer took a massive human toll. The full magnitude of this quiet catastrophe still remains largely an untold story, as data revealing the continent-wide scale have only slowly become available in the years since. All in all, more than 52,000 Europeans died from heat in the summer of 2003, making the heat wave one of the deadliest climate-related disasters in Western history.Temperature records were broken in a number of countries in 2003 as Europe experienced its hottest weather in at least 500 years. Hospitals were faced with unusually large burdens, and undertakers and funeral homes were overwhelmed. In France, doctors' warnings of a heat epidemic were largely quashed with the Ministry of Health's refusal to acknowledge the massive problem, reminiscent of the early political denial of the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed more than 700 people in a matter of days. But as the bodies piled up, requiring makeshift morgues, "ignore and neglect" was no longer a viable option.

While news reports gave estimates of a potentially large human death toll, it wasn't until well after the event that more accurate tallies became available. After facing criticism for its inadequate health facilities and lax government response, France became one of the first countries to release an epidemiological study revealing the true extent of the heat's damage. At the end of September 2003, the French National Institute of Health reported that in the first 20 days of August, heat had killed more than 14,800 people. During the peak of the heat, fatality rates topped 2,000 in a day.

Using this French report and other early figures, in October 2003 the Earth Policy Institute detailed a preliminary mortality tally for the 2003 European heat event (available at www.earthpolicy.org/Updates/Update29.htm). At that time, it appeared that some 35,000 people had died because of high temperatures. We now know that even this was an underestimate. Altogether, new data boost Europe's heat-related mortality for the summer of 2003 by 17,000 over preliminary estimates, to a record 52,000 casualties. (See country-by-country data at www.earthpolicy.org/Updates/2006/Update56_data.htm.)

In Portugal, where August 2003 temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit for many days, 2,099 deaths have been linked to the hot weather. In Belgium, where the mercury rose higher than at any time in the Royal Meteorological Society's register dating back to 1833, high temperatures brought 1,250 untimely deaths between June and August, nearly a tenfold increase over what was initially predicted. Recent information from Switzerland shows that 975 people died from heat in the warmest Swiss summer since 1540.

Unlike hurricanes or tornados that leave obvious damage and death in their wake, not to mention vivid images for the media, heat waves are silent killers. In late 2005, the world focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the United States, with massive monetary losses and over 1,300 deaths. While this was a significant catastrophe, the number of lives taken by Katrina is but a tiny fraction of the toll from Europe's 2003 heat wave. Because reports of the heat wave's casualties trickled out of individual countries over more than two years following the actual event and never received widespread media coverage, policymakers and the public at large have not grasped the full dimensions of the catastrophe and therefore underrate the risk of rising temperatures.

[This has been a guest post by Janet Larsen writing for the Earth Policy Institute. A longer version of this report is available here. The picture is of Europe in August 2003, created by NASA.]

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