Extreme heatwaves contributed to more than 60,000 deaths in Europe in 2022 – a far larger number than previous estimates have shown, according to a new report.
The study, conducted by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and published in the journal natural medicineestimated that a staggering 61,672 deaths were caused by extreme heat in Europe between May 30 and September 4, 2022.
Europe experienced its hottest summer on record in 2022, marked by a wave of scorching heat waves, devastating droughts and raging wildfires, brought on by the man-made climate crisis.
While excessive heat was known to have led to a significant increase in death rates, the exact number of deaths directly attributable to the heat was not quantified.
In a previous report, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a United Nations agency, put the death toll in Europe at 15,700 due to the 2022 heatwaves. Figures from the ISGlobal report now put it at four times what WMO found.
“This work adds to existing evidence on heat-related mortality by providing updated data and analysis for summer 2022 in Europe,” said Dr. Raquel Nunes, Assistant Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health. at Warwick Medical School, about the report. “The results of the current study, with over 61,000 estimated heat-related deaths, further support the evidence that heat waves have a significant impact on mortality rates.”
To arrive at these alarming figures, the research team collected temperature and mortality data from 2015 to 2022 for 823 regions in 35 European countries, representing a total population of more than 543 million people. These datasets were then used to develop epidemiological models to predict temperature-attributable mortality for each region and week during the summer period.
Temperature records indicated that every week throughout the summer period, Europeans experienced above-average temperatures, according to the report. The most extreme temperature anomalies occurred during the height of summer, from mid-July to mid-August.
Researchers say this repeated occurrence of heat waves dramatically increased heat-related mortality, resulting in 38,881 deaths between July 11 and August 14.
During this period (a little over a month), a strong pan-European heat wave occurred from July 18 to 24, killing 11,637 people. When examining the impact on individual countries, Italy reported the highest number of heat-attributable deaths throughout the summer of 2022, with a total of 18,010 fatalities. Spain followed closely with 11,324 deaths, while Germany recorded 8,173 deaths.
Analyzing heat-attributable death rates, Italy tops the list again with 295 deaths per million, followed by Greece (280), Spain (237) and Portugal (211). The European average was estimated at 114 deaths per million.
In terms of temperature anomalies, France experienced the largest deviation from average values for the period 1991-2020, with temperatures reaching an astonishing 2.43C warmer. Switzerland followed closely with 2.30C higher, while Italy, Hungary and Spain recorded an increase of 2.28C, 2.13C and 2.11C respectively.
The study also found marked differences in heat-related mortality by age and sex. It revealed that more women than men have died from heat waves, with the death rate for women being 63% higher than for men. The study estimated 35,406 premature deaths among women, or 145 deaths per million, and 21,667 deaths among men, or 93 deaths per million.
“It (the study) demonstrates that heat prevention strategies need to be reassessed, taking into account gender and age in particular,” said Dr Chloe Brimicombe, climatologist and extreme heat researcher at the Center. for Climate and Global Change from the University of Graz. .
“This research could be taken further, by assessing the social vulnerability of citizens across Europe in the future, as heat does not impact people equally. We need climate mitigation to help prevent the impact of heat from getting worse in the future.
Death rates were also significantly higher among older age groups, with 4,822 deaths in people under 65, 9,226 deaths in people aged 65-79 and a staggering 36,848 death in people over 79 years old.
Ms Nunes said older people are more vulnerable to extreme heat for several reasons. “As people age, their bodies become less efficient at regulating temperature and adapting to heat stress,” she explained. “This makes it harder for older people to cool down and maintain a stable body temperature during periods of high heat.”
In addition, older people are also more likely to have existing illnesses. Ms Nunes added that “certain medications commonly taken by older people, such as diuretics or beta-blockers, can interfere with the body’s ability to cool itself”.
“Additionally, social factors such as living alone, limited mobility, and inadequate access to cooling systems may contribute to older adults’ increased vulnerability to heat-related health risks.”
While the temperatures observed in the summer of 2022 were not unprecedented, the increased frequency and intensity of warming over the past decade, as average global temperatures reach 1.2°C, makes the situation d all the more urgent.
Europe, which is already experiencing warming 1°C higher than the global average, faces a bleak future if effective adaptive responses are not implemented, the report warns. Without such measures, the study predicts that by 2030, the continent will experience more than 68,000 premature deaths each summer, a number that will rise to more than 94,000 by 2040.
Although many countries have active prevention plans in place, the fact that more than 61,600 people died from heat stress in 2022 suggests that current coping strategies may be insufficient.
“The high number of heat-related deaths during the summer of 2022 in Europe highlights the urgency of action to protect vulnerable populations from the effects of heat waves,” says Ms Nunes.
“National governments, relevant agencies and other bodies should be called upon to increase the effectiveness of heat prevention and adaptation plans.”