Global Health

This is how countries are keeping people safe from heatwaves

Heatwaves intensify the risk to health and raise the number of deaths related to excess heat.

Heatwaves intensify the risk to health and raise the number of deaths related to excess heat. Image: Unsplash/luciandachman

Simon Torkington
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The climate crisis is likely to make heatwaves hotter and more frequent.
  • The global average temperature reached a record of close to 17.24°C on 7 July, while June 2023 was the hottest month on record.
  • The UK has launched a heat-health alert system to protect vulnerable people during heatwaves, while other countries are also implementing plans.

The first week in July 2023 "could be considered as the warmest week ever recorded”, according to Omar Baddour, Chief of Climate Monitoring at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Global average temperatures reached close to 17.24C on 7 July, breaking previous temperature records set just days earlier.

On 6 July, scientists at European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service revealed that June had been the world's hottest month on record. Temperatures recorded on both land and sea were abnormally high.

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It came as the WMO announced the El Niño weather phenomenon had started, which brings longer periods of hot, dry weather. Baddour said El Niño is expected to pick up in 2024, which could then be a record year for heat.

Summer 2023 set to be hotter than summer 2022

The scorching summer of 2022 broke temperature records across Europe, Asia and Africa, prompting governments to issue health warnings. Vulnerable people were urged to stay indoors and avoid the worst of the excessive heat.

According to the NASA Earth Observatory, on 13 July 2022, temperatures in Spain hit a blistering 42.2C, while Tunisia recorded 48C, breaking a record that had stood for 40 years.

Image showing the heatwaves and fires scorch in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Heatwaves scorched Europe, Asia and Africa in the summer of 2022. Image: NASA

In the UK, an island nation known for its cool and damp climate, a temperature above 40C was recorded for the first time on 19 July, the peak of a heatwave that lasted 15 days.

For many people with health conditions that make them vulnerable to extreme heat, the impact of the 2022 heatwaves was devastating. The UK government’s Office for National Statistics recorded 3,271 excess deaths during heatwaves between June and August 2022. The death rate for the period was 6.2% above the five-year national average for this time of the year.

Discover

How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

The UK Meteorological Office is predicting climate change will deliver hotter heatwaves that will occur more frequently. These heatwaves will intensify the risk to health and raise the number of deaths related to excess heat.

The UK is likely to see more heatwaves that pose life-threatening health risks.
The UK is likely to see more heatwaves that pose life-threatening health risks. Image: UK Met Office

To counter this threat, the UK Health Security Agency and the Met Office have developed a new alert system to warn the public when high temperatures could damage their health.

The heat-health alert gives colour-coded warnings based on the severity of the potential health risk posed by hot weather:

Green: No alert is issued as the weather poses little health risk

Yellow: Alerts the health and care sector that vulnerable people may be impacted

Amber: The whole population is potentially at risk requiring a healthcare system response

Red: Indicates a significant risk to life for the entire population.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 paints a picture of a future where, “heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events become more severe and frequent, a wider set of populations will be affected”. To keep people safe, governments will need to develop plans that marry mitigation with adaptation.

Here are 3 ways other countries are coping with the threat of heatwaves

France: After 11,000 heat-related deaths in 2022, the French government has published its first national heatwave management plan. The 15-point programme will see the elderly and vulnerable receiving calls to check on their health during hot periods.

Postal delivery workers will also be asked to check in on people who may be affected by the heat. The government has also ordered the monitoring of temperatures in schools and communities will be required to draw up a register of cool places where people can shelter from the heat.

United States: The state of California has just emerged from one of the longest droughts on record, but the threat of continuing heatwaves has prompted the development of a plan to make the state and its people more resilient to extreme heat.

Central to the $800 million plan is the implementation of a state-wide health monitoring system to track and intervene in cases of heat-related ill health. The state also plans to develop nature-based solutions to combat the impact of extreme heat events.

China: A months-long heatwave in 2022 plunged China into an energy crisis as power plants struggled to keep up with demand. In Sichuan Province, where 80% of power generation is hydroelectric, ‘cloud seeding’ aircraft were launched in an attempt to increase rainfall and boost the flow of the rivers that drive the turbines, The Guardian reported. Research shows that heat-related mortality has risen rapidly in China in the past 40 years.

How does extreme heat affect the body?

Extreme heat can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion and, in the worst cases, heatstroke. Heat exhaustion usually has minimal impact if the patient can get cool within 30 minutes. Heatstroke is a different matter and must be treated as an emergency.

Infographic illustrating the effects of heat exhaustion and heat strokes.
Extremely hot weather can cause a range of physical and mental health issues. Image: Australia Wide First Aid

Children, the elderly and people with long-term health conditions like diabetes and heart problems are more at risk of both heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

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