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As Global Temperatures Soar, Study Shows Europe's 2022 Summer Heat Killed 61,000+

"In an ideal society, nobody should die because of heat," said the lead author.

As recent record-breaking temperatures fuel fresh calls for climate action and communities brace for more extreme heat this week, new research revealed Monday that Europe's historically hot summer last year killed tens of thousands of people.

"The summer of 2022 was the hottest season on record in Europe, characterized by an intense series of heatwaves, which led to extremes in terms of temperature, drought, and fire activity," states the study, published in Nature Medicine.

Based on researchers' analysis of the European Statistical Office mortality database—which includes 45,184,044 deaths from 823 regions in 35 countries, with a total population exceeding 543 million people—last year's extreme heat resulted in an estimated 61,672 deaths from late May to early September. Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain were hit particularly hard.

Two decades ago, 71,000 excess deaths were recorded in Europe after intense summer heat, resulting in "prevention plans and other adaptation strategies to protect at-risk populations across the continent, that is, older adults with preexisting cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, women, and socially isolated or socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals," the study notes.

The new findings illustrate the potential shortcomings of those strategies amid a worsening climate emergency, the researchers said. Lead author Joan Ballester, an associate research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), toldThe New York Times that "in an ideal society, nobody should die because of heat."

"The summer of 2003 was an exceptionally rare phenomenon, even when taking into account the anthropogenic warming observed until then," Ballester explained in a statement. "This exceptional nature highlighted the lack of prevention plans and the fragility of health systems to cope with climate-related emergencies, something that was to some extent addressed in subsequent years."

"In contrast," he continued, "the temperatures recorded in the summer of 2022 cannot be considered exceptional, in the sense that they could have been predicted by following the temperature series of previous years, and that they show that warming has accelerated over the last decade."

Co-author Hicham Achebak, a researcher at both ISGlobal and France's Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, said, "The fact that more than 61,600 people in Europe died of heat stress in the summer of 2022, even though, unlike in 2003, many countries already had active prevention plans in place, suggests that the adaptation strategies currently available may still be insufficient."

"The acceleration of warming observed over the last 10 years underlines the urgent need to reassess and substantially strengthen prevention plans, paying particular attention to the differences between European countries and regions, as well as the age and gender gaps, which currently mark the differences in vulnerability to heat," Achebak added.

As the Times reported Monday:

Older people remain highly vulnerable, especially those without access to air conditioning, and so are people who work outdoors. Older women were likely the worst-off group last summer simply because they live longer than men into the ages when people are most frail and likely to die during intense heat, Dr. Ballester said. He said other researchers have studied the reasons for demographic differences in mortality rates: For example, men tend to have worse health outcomes at younger ages, and some outdoor occupations, like construction, are dominated by men.

This paper did not compare deaths among people of different races or ethnicities, but that’s another important factor in vulnerability to heat, said Juan Declet-Barreto, a senior social scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who studies the health effects of environmental hazards and wasn't involved in this study. While Dr. Declet-Barreto is less familiar with demographics in Europe, he said that in the United States people who work outdoors and are more exposed to heat tend to be immigrants of color.

While data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the United States sees about 700 heat-related deaths annually—far fewer than Europe, the world's fastest-warming continent—the U.S. agency's figures are based on death certificates identifying heat as the cause of death, according toCNN.

Harvard University historian and physician David S. Jones—who was not involved in the European study—told CNN that the low U.S. statistics relative to Europe could be related to underreporting, differences in air conditioning, or both. For example, nearly 90% of U.S. households have AC, compared with just 5% in France.

"There's also reason to believe that places that are more often exposed to heat, like the American South, are actually less vulnerable to heat than in places like the Northeast U.S. or in Chicago or Europe," Jones noted.

"But it comes back to this question of, well, is Europe just reporting more accurately than the U.S. is?" he added. "There's been people who have been frustrated with the quality of U.S. health data across the board, not just heat, but everything else, for decades."

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