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.
Generally it is 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.
Like this summer’s heat wave, the severely hot 2003 weather
withered crops, dried up rivers, fueled fires, and took a massive
human toll, the full magnitude of which remains a largely untold
Continent-wide data, slowly becoming available since 2003 reveals
that Europe’s hottest weather in at least 500 years killed
more than 52,000 people, making the 2003 heat wave one of the
deadliest climate-related disasters in Western history.
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 overcrowded and funeral homes were overwhelmed.
In France, doctors’ warnings of a heat epidemic were largely
quashed by the Ministry of Health’s initial refusal to
acknowledge the scale of the problem.As the bodies piled up and
offices had to be turned into makeshift morgues, denial was no
longer an option.
At the time, news reports grossly under-estimated the human death
toll. Only well after the event did more accurate tallies became
available. France was one of the first countries to release an
epidemiological study revealing the true deadliness of the heat.
By the end of September, the French National Institute of Health
reported that in the first 20 days of August heat 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 estimated that about 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 more deaths than 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.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control,
2,099 deaths (up from an estimate of 1,316) have been linked
to August 2003 temperatures in Portugal, which exceeded 104 degrees
In Belgium, where the mercury rose higher than at any time since
the Royal Meteorological Society began keeping records in 1833,
high temperatures brought 1,250 untimely deaths between June
and August, nearly a tenfold increase over initial projections.
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.
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 more than 1,300 deaths.
While this was a significant catastrophe, the number of lives
taken by Katrina is but a fraction of the toll from Europe’s
2003 heat wave. Because reports of the heat wave’s casualties
trickled out of individual countries over a two-year period,
the number of deaths never received widespread media coverag.
Neither policymakers nor the general public have yet grasped
the full dimensions of the catastrophe, and they therefore underrate
the risk of rising temperatures.
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. 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.
The human toll of heat waves:
Europe, summer 2003 Country Fatalities
Italy (July-Sept.) 18,257
France (Aug. 1-20) 14,802
Germany (August) 7,000
Spain (August) 4,130
England and Wales (Aug. 4-13) 2,139
Portugal (August) 2,099
Netherlands (June-Sept.) 1,800
Belgium (June-August) 1,250
Switzerland (June-August) 975
Total of Above Countries 52,452