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Hotter But Less Deadly? Preparedness May Cut Toll of Europe's Heat Wave

People cool off in the fountains of the Trocadero gardens, in front of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, June 28, 2019.

The impact of June's extreme heat across France, Spain and other parts of Europe is likely to have been less damaging than in the past because governments put in place measures to cope after a deadly 2003 heat wave, scientists said Tuesday.

Governments were spurred into action by a European heat wave that year that caused the deaths of more than 35,000 people, and are now better prepared to keep their citizens safe, according to climate scientists at the World Weather Attribution group.

The international partnership analyzes the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events, from floods to droughts.

The scientists on Tuesday released a rapid assessment of three days of scorching heat in France from June 26-28, saying climate change made the event five times more likely and had boosted the temperature of the heat wave by about 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

The death toll linked to health effects from the recent heat wave will not be known for a few weeks, they said.

But Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a senior researcher with the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, said heat action plans developed by governments had been shown to decrease mortality "substantially."

"We hope that this heat wave has become much less deadly than the 2003 heat wave because of the adaptation measures that have been taken," he told journalists.

Nuns use fans to cool-off in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, June 30, 2019.
Nuns use fans to cool-off in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, June 30, 2019.

Those measures — put in place from Paris to Barcelona — included handing out water at train stations and in other public places, asking people to check on elderly neighbors and relatives, and opening air-conditioned schools, libraries and other "cool shelters" for city residents.

Robert Vautard, a senior scientist at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), noted the recent heat wave was most extreme in southern France, where housing and social systems are already more adapted to extreme heat.

Temperatures in the southern Gard region hit an all-time high of 45.9 degrees Celsius (114.62 degrees Fahrenheit) last Friday — hotter than in California's Death Valley — sparking fires that burned 550 hectares of land.

But the temperature in the city of Paris remained relatively "reasonable" at about 35 or 36 degrees Celsius, which was lower than in 2003, reducing the negative consequences, Vautard added.

Fewer deaths

Friederike Otto, acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at Britain's University of Oxford, said research on a 2006 heat wave in Europe showed the 2003 wake-up call had led to fewer deaths as authorities brought in preventive measures.

During the July 2006 heat wave, about 2,065 deaths occurred above the normal death rate in France, which was about 4,400 less than expected based on the 2003 episode, a 2008 study said.

This week's rapid assessment said post-2003 heat plans had been activated for this June's heat wave and had probably helped ease the impacts.

Accurate forecasts by the national weather service, Meteo-France, also gave early warning, it said.

For example, the all-time national temperature record temperature was correctly forecast to within 1 degree Celsius, and the prediction came at least three days in advance.

Scientists decided to analyze the impact of the June heat wave in part because it came at a time of year when the French population is still at work and at school before the summer holidays, potentially making people more vulnerable.

Six women cool themselves in water in a pick-up truck, which they sealed with a plastic sheet, in Unlingen, southern Germany, June 30, 2019.
Six women cool themselves in water in a pick-up truck, which they sealed with a plastic sheet, in Unlingen, southern Germany, June 30, 2019.

The elderly and children are especially at risk in heat waves.

The French government decided to postpone one national exam because of the heat, despite the huge organizational challenges involved, the researchers noted.

Heat extremes warning

They examined the daily mean temperature — 27.5 degrees Celsius (81.5 degrees Fahrenheit) across France over the three days — rather than the maximum or minimum temperature because it is a better indicator of health impacts, they said.

Multi-day heat waves have proportionally larger health effects, and three days is a length that captures those impacts reasonably well, they noted.

The scientists warned that heat extremes are likely to rise as climate change warms the planet on a trajectory expected to exceed limits set by governments in a 2015 Paris climate accord.

Global average temperatures have already risen by 1 degree Celsius, and are on track to become at least 3 degrees Celsius hotter than in pre-industrial times, scientists have said.

If the world hits 2 degrees Celsius of warming and heat waves follow their current trends, "a heat wave like this will be the norm in June," warned Jan van Oldenborgh.