Lucifer effect: hellish heat is the most lethal weather disaster

The threat to human health from weather is rising, as heatwaves increase across Europe

People sun themselves  in Belgrade, Serbia: southern Europe and the Balkans are experiencing a heatwave with temperatures reaching more than 40 degrees. Photograph:  Pedja Milosavljevic/AFP/Getty Images

People sun themselves in Belgrade, Serbia: southern Europe and the Balkans are experiencing a heatwave with temperatures reaching more than 40 degrees. Photograph: Pedja Milosavljevic/AFP/Getty Images

 

If you are going to name an extreme heatwave you couldn’t beat Lucifer as a moniker. Which is what the Italians came up with to describe the recent weather system that encircled much of Europe.

There were several deaths in Italy linked to temperatures in excess of 42 degrees Celsius while the country reported a 15 per cent spike in hospital admissions in response to the sky high temperatures. Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Croatia also endured the high-pressure system, which a European weather centre labelled a code red for 10 countries.

It’s the region’s most sustained heatwave since 2003, which resulted in more than 20,000 heat-related deaths, mainly of old and vulnerable people. In France, where some 15,000 people died, temporary mortuaries were set up in refrigerated lorries.

Such spells of extreme heat in Europe could be a foretaste of things to come. French researchers last month predicted summer conditions in some of the continent’s popular tourist destinations could become even more challenging.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the scientists said if a similar “mega-heatwave” to that of 2003 were to occur at the end of the century, when average temperatures are widely expected to be noticeably higher after decades of global warming, temperatures could pass 50 degrees. The researchers noted that climate models suggest “human influence is expected to significantly increase the frequency, duration and intensity of heatwaves in Europe”.

Disasters

With impeccable timing, just as the heatwave arrived, a major European research project predicted that by 2100, two in three people living in Europe may be affected by weather-related disasters. The study, published in the Lancet Planetary Health, modelled the expected burden of climate change on the continent.

The estimates project a rise in the death toll due to weather-related disasters in Europe – with deaths potentially increasing by a factor of 50, from 3,000 deaths each year between 1981-2010 to 152000 a year between 2071-2100.

In what is a notable extension of previous research efforts, the study analyses the effects of the seven most harmful types of weather-related disaster – heat waves, cold waves, wildfires, droughts, river and coastal floods, and windstorms – in 31 European countries. It found that about 350 million Europeans could be exposed to harmful climate extremes on an annual basis by the end of the century.

Heatwaves emerge as the most lethal weather-related disaster – increasing from 2,700 deaths a year between 1981 and 2010, to 151,500 deaths a year in 2071-2100. It also projects substantial increases in deaths from coastal flooding, which could increase from six deaths a year at the start of the century to 233 a year by the end of the century.

According to the research, flooding represents the biggest future threat to Irish people. Demographic changes play a part; with an average increase in the proportion of people living in coastal flood zones of 192 per cent, we are just behind Slovenia when it comes to potential exposure to flooding as a health hazard.

But compared with southern Europe, we will get away lightly, according to the European Commission researchers. Our southern cousins are expected to endure about 700 deaths per million people per year due to weather-related disaster; we can expect some three deaths per million annually by 2100.

Unsurprisingly, climate change is to blame for the bulk of the expected increases. It accounts for 90 per cent of the risk, while population changes such as growth, migration and urbanisation account for the remaining 10 per cent.

Meanwhile the “Lucifer effect” will be most felt in urban areas due to an 18 per cent increase in city dwellers in Europe by 2050 and the urban heat island phenomenon which disproportionately affects older people, those with chronic illness and the poor.

Urbanites may have to consider a Faustian pact to mitigate the hellish effects of extreme heat.

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