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Record number of days of ‘extreme heat stress’ in Europe in 2023

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Twenty-three of the thirty worst heat waves ever recorded in Europe have occurred this century

Paris:

Europe will endure a record number of “extreme heat stress” days in 2023, two leading climate monitors said on Monday, underscoring the threat of increasingly deadly summers across the continent.
In a year of contrasting extremes, Europe witnessed scorching heat waves, but also catastrophic floods, devastating droughts, violent storms and the largest wildfires.

These disasters caused billions of dollars in damage and affected more than two million people, the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in a new joint report.

The health impacts have been particularly acute, with heat identified by these agencies as the biggest climate-related threat, as global warming drives increasingly hot European summers.

“We are seeing an increasing trend in the number of days with heat stress across Europe and 2023 was no exception, with Europe experiencing a record number of days with extreme heat stress,” said Rebecca Emerton, climate scientist at Copernicus.

For this research, Copernicus and WMO used the Universal Thermal Climate Index, which measures the effect of the environment on the human body.

It takes into account not only high temperatures, but also humidity, wind speed, sunshine and heat given off by the environment.

The index has 10 different categories of heat and cold stress, with units of degrees Celsius representing a ‘palpable’ temperature.

Extreme heat stress “equals a wind chill of more than 46 degrees Celsius, at which point it is imperative to take measures to prevent health risks such as heat stroke,” Emerton said.

‘Extended summer’

Long-term exposure to heat stress is especially dangerous for vulnerable people, such as the elderly or those with pre-existing health problems.

The effect of heat is stronger in cities, the report said.

Twenty-three of the 30 worst heat waves ever recorded in Europe have occurred this century and heat-related deaths have risen by around 30 percent in the past 20 years, the report said.

2023 wasn’t the hottest summer in Europe – in fact, it was the fifth – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t blazing.

Much of Europe warmed up due to heat waves during an “extended summer” between June and September, Emerton said.

September was the warmest on record for Europe as a whole, she added.

On July 23, an unprecedented 13 percent of Europe experienced high levels of heat stress, with southern Europe hardest hit.

Data on deaths in Europe due to extreme heat in 2023 are not yet available.

But tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died as a result of heat waves during the equally sweltering European summers in 2003, 2010 and 2022, the report said.

“We see that there is excess mortality when we see such extreme heat waves as was the case in 2023,” said Alvaro Silva, a climatologist at WMO.

“This increase in mortality… affects (the) vast majority of European regions. This is a major concern.”

Serious consequences

Scientists agree that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, leading to more intense and frequent extreme weather events.

Europe is warming twice as fast as the global average and heat waves will become longer and more powerful in the future, the report said.

This – coupled with an aging population and more people moving to cities – will have “serious consequences for public health,” it added.

“Current heat wave interventions will soon be insufficient to address the projected heat-related health burden.”

2023 was the hottest year on record globally and the oceans, which absorb 90 percent of the excess heat produced by carbon dioxide emissions, have also warmed to new highs.

Average sea surface temperatures in Europe were the warmest on record, the report said, with a severe marine heatwave in a part of the Atlantic described as “excessively extreme”.

Glaciers in all parts of Europe saw ice loss, while Greece suffered the largest forest fires in EU history.

2023 was also one of Europe’s wettest years, with major floods affecting 1.6 million people, and a further 550,000 storms.

Emerton said the economic cost of these extreme events was 13.4 billion euros ($14.3 billion) – about 80 percent attributed to flooding.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)