Study predicts worsening killer heat waves in Europe

Heat waves in Europe could kill more than 150,000 people each year by the end of the century, 50 times more deaths than reported now, according to a new study.

Warns 2 in 3 Europeans could be affected by extreme weather by 2100 if emissions not controlled

A woman cools off at a fountain in downtown Rome as a heatwave hits Italy on Aug. 3. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

Europe's death toll from weather disasters could rise 50-fold by the end of this century, with extreme heat alone killing more than 150,000 people a year by 2100 if nothing is done to curb the effects of climate change, scientists said on Friday.

In a study in The Lancet Planetary Health journal, the scientists said their findings showed climate change placing a rapidly increasing burden on society, with two in three people in Europe likely to be affected if greenhouse gas emissions and extreme weather events are not controlled.

The predictions, based on an assumption of no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and no improvement in policies to reduce the impact of extreme climatic events, show European weather-related deaths rising from 3,000 a year between 1981 and 2010 to 152,000 a year between 2071 and 2100.

Carriage horses get a shower to cool down at Stephansplatz on a hot summer day in Vienna on Aug. 1. (Georg Hochmuth/AFP/Getty Images)

"Climate change is one of the biggest global threats to human health of the 21st century, and its peril to society will be increasingly connected to weather-driven hazards," said Giovanni Forzieri of the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Italy, who co-led the study.

He said that "unless global warming is curbed as a matter of urgency," some 350 million Europeans could be exposed to harmful climate extremes on an annual basis by the end of the century.

The study analyzed the effects of the seven most harmful types of weather-related disaster — heat waves, cold waves, wildfires, droughts, river and coastal floods and windstorms — in the 28 countries of the European Union, plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

A man jumps into a fountain in Budapest, Hungary on Aug. 4. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

The team looked at disaster records from 1981 to 2010 to estimate population vulnerability, then combined this with modelling of how climate change might progress and how populations might increase and migrate.

Their findings suggested heat waves would be the most lethal weather-related disaster and could cause 99 per cent of all future weather-related deaths in Europe — rising from 2,700 deaths a year between 1981 and 2010 to 151,500 deaths a year in 2071 to 2100.

Rise in deaths from coastal flooding

The results also predicted a substantial rise in deaths from coastal flooding, from six deaths a year at the start of the century to 233 a year by the end of it.

The researchers said climate change would be the main driver, accounting for 90 percent of the risk, while population growth, migration and urbanisation would account for 10 per cent.

Paul Wilkinson, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was not involved in the research, said its findings were worrying.

"Global warming could result in rapidly rising human impacts unless adequate adaptation measures are taken, with an especially steep rise in the mortality risks of extreme heat," he said.

The findings add "further weight to the powerful argument for accelerating mitigation actions" to limit emissions, slow climate change and protect population health, Wilkinson said. 

2 deaths from heat this week

A relentless heat wave that gripped parts of Europe this week has sent temperatures soaring to record highs for several days, causing at least two deaths and prompting authorities to issue weather alerts.

Extreme heat in Italy, and parts of France and Spain and the Balkans, has led to dozens of wildfires, damaged crops and fuelled power and water consumption. Authorities in some areas issued traffic restrictions and banned work in the open in the hottest part of the day as temperatures reached more than 40 C.

Spain's national weather service on Saturday issued an emergency warning for high temperatures for 31 of the country's 50 provinces. Authorities in other countries urged people to stay indoors and drink a lot of water.

With files from The Associated Press