Europe feels the heat

Records melted like ice cubes across Europe during the astonishing summer of 2003. Pulses of heat plagued much of the continent in June and July, but by far the worst occurred in the first two weeks of August. Many areas topped 35°C/95°F day after day, with nights often staying above 20°C/68°F. England saw its first day of 38°C/100°F heat in nearly 300 years of record keeping; in London, tube stops were like ovens. Three other countries (Germany, Switzerland and Portugal) also notched all-time records, with the town of Amareleja, Portugal, soaring to 47.3°C/117.1°F.

The unusual strength and persistence of the heat wave produced a catastrophic death toll that went almost unnoticed at first. In France, the peak of the heat coincided with the annual vacations that close down much of Paris. Left behind were thousands of elderly residents unable to cope with the unprecedented heat. Short-staffed hospitals and morgues found themselves overwhelmed. More than 20,000 deaths were reported by September across Europe, including more than 13,000 in France alone. That toll steadily mounted, eventually topping 50,000 – making it the greatest heat-related disaster in worldwide annals.

Thousands of heat-wave victims in Europe may have died from pollution rather than the heat perse. Studies in Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands suggest that anywhere from 10-40 percent of the deaths attributed to heat i n those countries i n 2003 may have been due to high concentrations of ozone and fine particulates. The same conditions that led to the intense heat – sunny skies and stagnant air – also fostered unusually dirty air, a serious threat to people with compromised respiratory systems.