In August 2003, Europe struggled under the highest temperatures ever recorded in the northern hemisphere. The Earth Policy Institute (EPI) warned: ‘Heatwaves are a silent killer, mostly affecting the elderly, the very young, or the chronically ill.’ The European heatwave certainly proved that statement to be correct.
The worst hit country was France, where various additional factors contributed to the disaster. The nights are normally cool in France, even during the summer, and air conditioning is rare. During this period, however, temperatures remained high at night. Also, August is the main holiday period for the French; businesses shut and almost everyone goes away, including government ministers and doctors. Of the 14,802 people who died in France, most were elderly folk living alone, whose families had gone away and were unable to offer assistance.
The French government was quick to distance itself from responsibility, but the opposition blamed Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei for failing to return from his holiday and for blocking hospitals from taking emergency measures – such as recalling medical staff. He lost his post in a reshuffle that took place in the following spring.
In Italy and Spain about 4,200 people died. In Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal and the UK, record temperatures were noted.
Southern Europe suffered drought conditions which had a serious effect on agriculture. The total production of wheat in the EU was short by ten per cent and the grape harvest took place several weeks earlier than usual. It is thought that 2003 was a very good year for wine in terms of quality, although production was the lowest for ten years.
The EPI stated that more and more extreme weather events are likely to occur in future and that the world must cut its carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming and climate change.
When: August 2003
Where: Throughout Europe
Death toll: Approximately 35,000
You should know: During the period August 4-13 2003 there were more than 2,000 extra deaths in the UK. A record high temperature of 38.5°C (101.3°F) was recorded near Faversham in Kent, beating the previous record of 37.1°C (98.8°F), which was recorded in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.