Heat waves are most dangerous in cold countries -Soroka Med

Much of Europe has been sweltering under temperatures near 40 degrees centigrade, sending residents of England, France, Italy and elsewhere to historical fountains in cities to jump in and cool off.

A man dives into River Thames, during a heatwave in Oxford, Britain, July 19, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/DYLAN MARTINEZ)
A man dives into River Thames, during a heatwave in Oxford, Britain, July 19, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/DYLAN MARTINEZ)

Heat waves in cold countries such as France and Italy, whose infrastructure is not prepared for extreme heat, are much more dangerous to human health and life than heat waves in Israel, according to Prof. Victor Novack, director of the Research and Development Authority at Soroka-University Medical Center in Beersheba.

Much of Europe has been sweltering under temperatures near 40º Celsius, sending residents of England, France, Italy and elsewhere to historical fountains in cities to jump in and cool off. Air conditioners are still relatively rare in Western Europe, while in Israel they are a must.

A population living in a cold area is not accustomed to heat, is not prepared for it and therefore copes with it less well.

Professor Victor Novack

The climate change has been so drastic in recent years that in England, farmers have started growing grapes for wine and competing with Israeli vintners, which was unheard of only a few years ago. “Heat waves in Israel can be dangerous if there is damage to infrastructure that helps us deal with extreme weather conditions, especially electricity infrastructure,” Novack said.

“Israel has a significant place in dealing with climate change and heat waves,” he said. Novack, a specialist in internal medicine and epidemiology who graduated from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, is researching the effects of global warming and its effects on human health. “The link between heat waves and mortality has been observed in many studies around the world,” he said. “The effect of heat waves on deaths is more significant in cold countries compared with hot countries. For example, Israel is regarded as a ‘hot’ country, while Italy, France or England are ‘cold countries.’”

Prof. Victor Novack (credit: ADVA BARZILAI FOR SOROKA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER)Prof. Victor Novack (credit: ADVA BARZILAI FOR SOROKA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER)

But times are changing, Novack said, adding that “even differences within large countries can be observed. Thus, in countries such as Italy, the United States, China and France, the populations in the ‘hot’ south suffer less from the risk than in the north of those countries.”

Why does this occur?

The reason for this lies in the differences between the temperatures brought by the heat wave; the more the heat wave causes a sharper change in the temperature to which humans are accustomed in the same area, the greater the effect on excess mortality of humans.

According to data from previous studies, it seems that in France – a country that is obviously colder than Israel – many thousands of Frenchmen died last year in heat waves, compared with an estimated 360 Israelis over a decade who died of heat stroke.

“There are two main factors that make the difference – readiness and adaptation,” Novack said. “A population living in a cold area is not accustomed to heat, is not prepared for it and therefore copes with it less well. In warm countries like Israel, everybody talks about the weather and is aware of heat.”

People living in places that now suffer from heat waves should get an air conditioner, drink more water and stay out of the sun as much as possible, he said.

“The bottom line is that the phenomenon of excess mortality from heat waves in Israel is marginal in relation to excess mortality in cold countries,” he added.

“While it is difficult to compare countries and different heat waves, due to different definitions, the excess mortality is between 5% and 40%, depending on the place and the heat wave,” Novack said. “In Israel, the excess mortality is less than 5%, so our situation is better.”

Studies done so far have not tested the theory he raises, as each article that has studied the effects of heat waves is done in a different methodology, on different populations and using different definitions.

Nevertheless, “heat waves in Israel may be no less dangerous than in cold countries if they endanger infrastructure, especially that involving electricity that could suddenly shut down,” Novack said.