2003 European heat wave
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The 2003 European heat wave was the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. France was hit especially hard. The heat wave led to health crises in several countries and combined with drought to create a crop shortfall in parts of Southern Europe. Peer reviewed analysis places the European death toll at 70,000.
HEAT WAVE by country:
In France, there were 14,802 heat-related deaths (mostly among the elderly) during the heat wave, according to the French National Institute of Health. France does not commonly have very hot summers, particularly in the northern areas, but seven days with temperatures of more than 40 °C (104 °F) were recorded in Auxerre, Yonne during July and August 2003. Because of the usually relatively mild summers, most people did not know how to react to very high temperatures (for instance, with respect to rehydration), and most single-family homes and residential facilities built in the last 50 years were not equipped with air conditioning. Furthermore, while there were contingency plans for a variety of natural and man-made catastrophes, high temperatures had rarely been considered a major hazard.
The catastrophe occurred in August, a month in which many people, including government ministers and physicians, are on holiday. Many bodies were not claimed for many weeks because relatives were on holiday. A refrigerated warehouse outside Paris was used by undertakers as they did not have enough space in their own facilities. On September 3, 2003, fifty-seven bodies still left unclaimed in the Paris area were buried.
The high number of deaths can be explained by the conjunction of seemingly unrelated events. Most nights in France are cool, even in summer. As a consequence, houses (usually of stone, concrete or brick construction) do not warm too much during the daytime and radiate minimal heat at night, and air conditioning is usually unnecessary. During the heat wave, temperatures remained at record highs even at night, preventing the usual cooling cycle. Elderly persons living by themselves had never faced such extreme heat before and did not know how to react or were too mentally or physically impaired by the heat to make the necessary adaptations themselves. Elderly persons with family support or those residing in nursing homes were more likely to have others who could make the adjustments for them. This led to statistically improbable survival rates with the weakest group having fewer deaths than more physically fit persons; most of the heat victims came from the group of elderly persons not requiring constant medical care or living alone without immediate family.
That shortcomings of the nation’s health system could allow such a death toll is a matter of controversy in France. The administration of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin laid the blame on families who had left their elderly behind without caring for them, the 35-hour workweek, which affected the amount of time doctors could work and family practitioners vacationing in August. Many companies traditionally closed in August, so people had no choice about when to vacation. Family doctors were still in the habit of vacationing at the same time. It is not clear that more physicians would have helped as the main limitation was not the health system but locating old people needing assistance.
The opposition, as well as many of the editorials of the local press, have blamed the administration. Many blamed Health Minister Jean-François Mattei for failing to return from his vacation when the heat wave became serious, and his aides for blocking emergency measures in public hospitals (such as the recalling of physicians). A particularly vocal critic was Dr. Patrick Pelloux, head of the union of emergency physicians, who blamed the Raffarin administration for ignoring warnings from health and emergency professionals and trying to minimize the crisis. Mattei lost his ministerial post in a cabinet reshuffle on March 31, 2004.
Not everyone blamed the government. “The French family structure is more dislocated than elsewhere in Europe, and prevailing social attitudes hold that once older people are closed behind their apartment doors or in nursing homes, they are someone else’s problem,” said Stéphane Mantion, an official with the French Red Cross. “These thousands of elderly victims didn’t die from a heat wave as such, but from the isolation and insufficient assistance they lived with day in and out, and which almost any crisis situation could render fatal.”
There were extensive forest fires in Portugal. Five percent of the countryside and ten percent of the forests (215,000 hectares) were destroyed, an estimated 4,000 square kilometres (1,500 sq mi). Eighteen people died in the fires and there were an estimated 1866 to 2039 heat related deaths over all. Temperatures reached as high as 48 °C (118 °F)in Amareleja. The first of August was the hottest day in centuries, with night temperatures well above 30 °C (86 °F). A freak storm developed on the southern region during that dawn. A hot, strong saharan wind blew during the subsequent days of that week.
There were about 1,500 heat related deaths in the Netherlands, again largely the elderly. The heat wave here broke no records, although 4 tropical weather designated days in mid-July, preceding the official wave, are not counted due to a cool day in between and the nature of the Netherlands specification/definition of a heat wave. The highest temperature recorded this heatwave was on 7 August, when in Arcen, in Limburg, a temperature of 37.8 °C was reached, 0.8 °C below the national record (since 1704). A higher temperature had only been recorded twice before. On 8 August a temperature of 37.7 °C was recorded, and 12 August saw a temperature of 37.2 °C.
There were 141 deaths officially attributed to the heat wave, although an increase of about 13,000 deaths over the previous year was reported. Temperature records were broken in various cities including 45.1 °C (113.2 °F) in Jerez , 41 °C (106 °F), with the heat wave being more felt in typically cooler northern Spain. Thus, record temperatures were reached in Girona, 38.8 °C (101.8 °F) in Burgos, 38.6 °C (101.5 °F) in San Sebastián, 36 °C (97 °F) in Pontevedra and 36 °C (97 °F) in Barcelona. In Sevilla was 45.2 °C(113.4 °F) although the record was in 1995 with 46.6 °C (115.9 °F).
The summer 2003 was among the warmest in the last three centuries, and the maximum temperatures of July and August remained above 30 °C. The high humidity intensified the perception of heat and population suffering. Several reports about strong positive temperature anomalies exist — for instance from Toscana and Veneto.Temperatures rose far above average in most of the country and reached very high mean values especially in terms of heat persistence. The weather station of Catenanuova, in Sicily, had a monthly mean of 31.5 °C (88.7 °F) in July 2003, with an absolute maximum of 46.0 °C (114.8 °F) on 17 July, with monthly mean maximum temperatures of 36.0 °C(96.8 °F), 38.9 °C (102.0 °F) and 38.0 °C (100.4 °F) in June, July and August 2003 respectively.
In Germany, a record temperature of 40.4 °C (104.7 °F) was recorded at Roth bei Nürnberg, Bavaria. But some experts suspect that the highest temperatures occurred in the upper Rhine plain, which is known for very high temperatures. At some stations (private stations, for example Mannheim or Frankenthal), temperatures over 41 °C(106 °F) were reported, but not recognized by official statistics. With only half the normal rainfall, rivers were at their lowest this century, and shipping could not navigate the Elbe or Danube. Around 9,000 people—mostly elderly—died during the 2003 heatwave in Germany.
Melting glaciers in the Alps caused avalanches and flash floods in Switzerland. A new nationwide record temperature of 41.5 °C (106.7 °F) was recorded in Grono, Graubünden.
The United Kingdom experienced a warm summer with temperatures well above average. However, Atlantic cyclones brought cool and wet weather for a short while at the end of July and very beginning of August before the temperatures started to increase substantially from 3 August onwards. Several weather records were broken in the United Kingdom, including the UK’s highest recorded temperature38.5 °C (101.3 °F) at Gravesend in Kent on 10 August. Scotland also broke its highest temperature record with 32.9 °C (91.2 °F)recorded in Greycrook in the Scottish borders on 9 August. According to the BBC around 2,000 more people than usual died in the United Kingdom during the 2003 heatwave.
The summer of 2003 was warmer than average in Ireland, but the heat was far less pronounced there than in the rest of Europe. August was by far the warmest, sunniest and driest month, with temperatures roughly 2°C above average. The highest temperature recorded was30.3 °C (86.5 °F) at Belderrig, County Mayo on 8 August.