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19 July 2022

How deadly could heatwaves in Europe get?

Over the past 40 years, more than 90,000 people have died during heatwaves across the continent and the UK.

By Isabeau van Halm

Temperatures across mainland Europe and the UK are soaring to unprecedented highs, and wildfires are forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. In Spain and Portugal, 1,100 heat-related deaths have already been recorded and the death toll is expected to rise as the extreme heat lingers.

Between 1985 and 2020, more than 90,000 people died in the EU and the UK as a result of heatwaves. France, Italy and Spain experienced the highest number of deaths, with more than 27,000 fatalities in France alone. 

The deadliest year was 2003, when a record-breaking heatwave resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 people, show figures from the international disasters database Em-Dat. The highest temperature in the UK (as of this morning) was recorded three years ago in Cambridge. That figure of 38.7°C has likely been broken today (19 July): the Met Office has confirmed that a provisional recording of 40.2°C was taken at Heathrow. “Temperatures are likely to rise further through today,” said the UK’s national weather service.

Heatwaves are expected to become more frequent and intense in the coming decades because of climate change. Without adaptation measures to protect people from high temperatures, the death toll in the EU could be 30 times higher by the end of the century compared with today, research from the European Commission has warned. The world has warmed by around 1.2°C since pre-industrial times. The commission's modelling shows that a 3°C increase in global warming by 2100 (we are on track for a rise of at least 2.7°C by the end of the century) could cause deaths in Europe from extreme heat to climb to 89,000 people every year.

[See also: Nine of the top 10 UK temperatures have occurred since 1990]

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