EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Plan B Updates
July 28, 2006
Setting the Record Straight: More than 52,000 Europeans Died from Heat in Summer 2003
Janet Larsen

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. The unusually warm weather began in June and culminated in an unrelenting heat wave during the first two weeks of August. With both daytime and nighttime temperatures remaining high, large numbers of vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, succumbed to the baking heat.

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.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2003/update29). 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.

Of the new information that has trickled out over the last few years, the biggest surprise has come from Italy. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, the summer of 2003 yielded more than 18,000 excess deaths when compared with 2002. In August alone, 9,700 fatalities were likely connected to the high temperatures, which in parts of Italy averaged 16 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in the preceding year. These elevated numbers far exceed the Italian Health Ministry’s early assessment that some 4,000 people died from heat country-wide during the hottest days. (See data.)

Another upward adjustment was published for Portugal by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, where August 2003 temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit for many days. There, 2,099 deaths have been linked to the hot weather, up from the Portuguese National Institute of Health’s preliminary estimate of 1,316 fatalities. 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. And more recent information from Switzerland shows that 975 people died from heat in the warmest Swiss summer since 1540. 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.

The Human Toll of Heat Waves:
Selected Examples from Europe in Summer 2003
Number of Fatalities
Weather Details
Italy (1)
Temperatures in parts of the country averaged 16 degrees Fahrenheit higher than previous year.
France (2)
Temperatures soared to 104 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the country; Paris temperatures were the highest since record-keeping began in 1873.
Germany (3*)
High temperatures of up to 105.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest since records began in 1901, raised mortality some 10 percent.
Spain (3)(4)
High temperatures joined with elevated ground-level ozone concentrations to exceed the European Union's health-risk threshold.
England and
Wales (5)
The first triple-digit Fahrenheit temperatures ever were recorded in London.
Portugal (3)
Temperatures were above 104 degrees Fahrenheit throughout much of the country.
Netherlands (6)
Temperatures ranged some 14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal.
Belgium (7)
Temperatures exceeded any in the Royal Meteorological Society's records dating back to 1833.
Switzerland (7)
Summer 2003 was likely the warmest since 1540.
Europe experienced its hottest summer in at least 500 years.
Key: To convert temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32 and divide by 1.8.
Notes on data:
(1) Data are for July through September 2003.
(2) Data are for 1–20 August 2003.
(3) Data are for August 2003.
(4) Data for Spain are a range of 3,574–4,687 deaths.
(5) Data are for 4–13 August 2003.
(6) Data are for June through September 2003, with an estimated range of 1,400–2,200.
(7) Data are for June through August 2003.
(*) No official assessment has been made by the German government.

Source: compiled by Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute, October 2003, updated July 2006.
For sources see the full table in Excel.

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. Coroners’ reports rarely list “heat” as the primary cause of death, even when high temperatures may have precipitated cardiovascular or respiratory failure or dehydration. Thus it is generally not until a heat wave is long over, when death counts can be compared to what would otherwise be expected in a “normal” year, that we begin to learn the full human toll. Yet governments, reluctant to admit public health failures, often release such numbers with little fanfare.

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.

People, particularly government officials, need reliable information on the threat that extreme heat can pose. Indeed, after the 2003 event a number of European countries beefed up their heat-health alert systems and took additional measures to prepare for future heat waves. Following the public outrage over its 2003 failures, France’s Ministry of Health announced increased funding for hospital beds and more jobs for health workers, as well as a renewed focus on care for elderly people who suffer the most during warm spells. The Spanish government’s heat wave action plan includes an awareness campaign for social service and health care professionals, a voluntary register for people at high risk to receive special services, and a daily mortality monitoring system.

Projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global body of some 2,000 scientists, show more extreme weather events ahead as the planet heats up. By the end of the century, the world’s average temperature is projected to increase by 2.5–10.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4–5.8 degrees Celsius). As the mercury climbs, more frequent and more severe heat waves are in store. Accordingly, the World Meteorological Organization estimates that the number of heat-related fatalities could double in less than 20 years.

Scientists from the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research and from Oxford University reported in 2004 that human activity, namely the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning, doubled the risk of extreme heat waves like the one that cost so many lives in Europe in 2003. Avoiding “loading the climate dice” even further in favor of future weather calamities will take a concerted effort to cut carbon emissions quickly and dramatically.

Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute

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