Europe's heatwave may have caused more than 20,000 'excess' deaths

Temperatures estimated to be impossible without climate change plagued a number of European countries during the summer of 2022.

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)

Summer heatwaves in France, Germany, Spain and Britain led to more than 20,000 "excess" deaths, a report compiling official figures said on Thursday.

Temperatures hit nearly 40 degrees Celsius or above from Paris to London in 2022 and climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution group found that such high temperatures would have been "virtually impossible" without climate change.

The worst heatwave of the millenium

A heatwave in 2003 caused more than 70,000 excess deaths across Europe, largely in France, and led many countries to implement measures such as early warning systems, asking people to check on others and opening air-conditioned schools.

"I consider this ... the most impactful heatwave since 2003"

Chloe Brimicombe

This and related action plans may have eased some of the impact of heatwaves in 2022, but the death toll was still "higher than expected," Chloe Brimicombe, a heatwaves researcher at the University of Graz in Austria, said.

"I consider this ... the most impactful heatwave since 2003," she told Reuters.

 People watch as a fire burns during a heatwave, in Rainham, east London, Britain, July 19, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/TONY O'BRIEN) People watch as a fire burns during a heatwave, in Rainham, east London, Britain, July 19, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/TONY O'BRIEN)

How are the deaths counted?

Because authorities do not attribute most deaths directly to heat, statisticians use the excess formula to give an estimate, looking at how many more people died in a given period than would be expected compared with a historical baseline.

Heat can kill by inducing heatstroke, which damages the brain, kidneys and other organs, but it can also trigger other conditions such as a heart attack or breathing problems.

The World Meteorological Organization said this month that Europe had warmed more than twice as much as the rest of the world over the past three decades, while the Copernicus Climate Change Service said summer 2022 was the hottest on record.

France reported about half of the summer's excess deaths in Western Europe, with 10,420 fatalities in total.

Excess deaths reached 3,271 in England and Wales during the summer, Britain's Office of National Statistics reported.

Left and middle: Impact of the extreme heatwave and drought of summer 2018, as compared to summer 2017, on fields around the town of Slagelse in Zealand, Denmark (credit:  European Space Agency)Left and middle: Impact of the extreme heatwave and drought of summer 2018, as compared to summer 2017, on fields around the town of Slagelse in Zealand, Denmark (credit: European Space Agency)

Spain recorded 4,655 heat-attributable deaths between June and August while the German health agency reported 4,500.