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Why some heatwaves prove deadlier than others

Why some heatwaves prove deadlier than others

Why some heatwaves prove deadlier than others

Why some heatwaves prove deadlier than others

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  • Nearly 1,700 extra deaths occurred in England and Wales during Europe’s record-breaking heatwave. More than 11,000 of the nearly 15,000 people who died in France were over the age of 75.
  • The peak coincided with the traditional holiday period, when many children were out of school.
  • Some cities in the U.S. have hired “heat officers” to assist communities in dealing with the heat by handing out water bottles or directing people to air-conditioned cooling centres. This year, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been subjected to a scorching summer heatwave.
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Early data from Europe’s record-breaking heatwave last month show that nearly 1,700 extra deaths occurred in England and Wales in just one week, with another 1,700 occurring in Portugal and Spain.

The figures, which are likely to change as records are updated, provide the first indication of heat-related deaths when temperatures reach nearly 40 degrees Celsius or higher from London to Madrid.

 

The data for England and Wales, released on Tuesday by the UK’s Office for National Statistics, compares registered deaths from July 16 to 22 to what would be expected over the same time period based on 5-year mortality averages.

 

The World Health Organization’s toll for the Iberian Peninsula is also provisional. more info

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However, the July figures were nowhere near the 70,000 heat-related deaths recorded during a European heatwave in 2003.

 

Here are some of the factors that contribute to some heatwaves being more deadly than others.

The 2003 heatwave closed businesses, destroyed crops, and dried up rivers in the first two weeks of August.

The Paris region of France was hardest hit. Cities experience more intense heatwaves because concrete and asphalt absorb and retain heat.

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The peak coincided with the traditional holiday period, when many children were out of school and families were on vacation, leaving elderly relatives behind in some cases.

More than 11,000 of the nearly 15,000 people who died in France were over the age of 75.

“A lot of people said goodbye to grandma sitting in her house and went on vacation,” said Matthew Huber, a Purdue University global expert on heat stress. “Normally, people would have checked in” on them.

Doctors were also on vacation. “Emergency services were not as well prepared, and there were no people on call,” said Mathilde Pascal, a researcher with the French Public Health Agency.

France is currently experiencing its third heatwave of the summer of 2022, which is affecting both humans and wildlife. more info

Following the disaster in 2003, many European countries developed heatwave action plans and began issuing early warnings. According to experts, preparing for extreme heat can save lives.

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“More people are aware of what to do in the event of a heatwave,” said Chloe Brimicombe, a heatwave researcher at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. However, some countries are simply better equipped than others: nearly 90% of US homes have air conditioning, compared to only 20% of European households, according to US federal statistics.

 

However, technology cannot always assist. This year, Palestinians in the crowded Gaza Strip have been subjected to a scorching summer heatwave, which has been exacerbated by power outages that have left them without electricity for up to 10 hours per day. more info

Last month, nearly a third of the U.S. population was under a heat warning, and forecasts predict even more extreme heat this month.

People in poorer communities and the homeless are more vulnerable.

According to local health officials, 130 of the 339 people who died during last year’s heatwave in Phoenix, Arizona, were homeless. more info

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Some cities in the United States, including Phoenix, have hired “heat officers” to assist communities in dealing with the heat by handing out water bottles or directing people to air-conditioned cooling centres. more info

“The risk of heat-related death is 200 to 300 times higher among our unsheltered neighbours than among the rest of the population,” Phoenix heat officer David Hondula said.

People who live in warm-weather countries are accustomed to extreme heat. When a person is repeatedly exposed to high temperatures, their heart rate and core body temperature decrease over time, increasing their tolerance.

As a result, the temperature at which people begin to die from heat-related illness varies by location, as does the related ‘Minimum Mortality Temperature’ (MMT), which is the temperature at which all deaths from natural causes reach their lowest point.

“If you live in India, your MMT is much higher than if you live in the UK,” Huber explained.

According to recent research, an area’s MMT can increase as the temperature rises. A 0.73C increase in MMT was found for every 1C increase in average summertime temperatures in Spain between 1978 and 2017, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in April.

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However, because so much about extreme heat and human endurance remains unknown, scientists are unsure whether the changes they are seeing in MMTs over time are also related to people becoming more aware of the dangers or better equipped to deal with them.

“There are several possible explanations,” Huber said, “and we still don’t know which is the most important cause.”

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