Health

4 ways Europe is tackling extreme temperatures

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The temperatures are cooler this week across most of Europe, but the danger of heat waves hasnt lifted.

Scientists have calculated that climate change is making summer heat waves five times more likely and significantly more intense.

“The temperatures reached in 2003 [when a record heat wave hit Europe] are likely to be a normal summer by 2040,” notes the latest heat wave assessment by the U.K.s Public Health Department.

Despite this weeks more bearable temperatures, vast swaths of Siberia are aflame and Greenlands ice cap is experiencing dramatic melting; many scientists say that the unstable weather is a consequence of global warming.

As intense heat becomes routine, its forcing a rethink of everything from health policy to farming. In Germany and the U.K, rail operators are painting tracks white to prevent them from buckling in the heat, while farmers look to plant trees to shield vulnerable crops. However, the experience of increasingly frequent heat waves has at least one positive consequence — because people are better prepared, fewer die now when temperatures soar.

POLITICO took a look at four areas affected by heat waves and how people and policymakers are adjusting to a hotter future.

The end of the harbor wall in Margate, United Kingdom in July 2019 | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

1. More heat but fewer deaths

The heat wave of 2003 was a wake-up call for Europe.

That summer August temperatures soared to around 40 degrees all around Europe and up to 47.4 degrees in Amareleja, Portugal on one day — a record that resulted in anywhere from 35,000 to 70,000 deaths, depending on who was counting. France accounted for 15,000 deaths, many of whom were elderly.

The tragic consequences prompted European countries to develop heat wave plans.

In 2003, French morgues were overflowing with bodies after a heat wave with temperatures that topped 40 degrees Celsius arrived in the first two weeks of August | Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

“That in itself has helped prevention efforts in the years since, as health warnings are now reaching a receptive public that is not so quick to shrug off the threat,” said Richard Keller, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who wrote a book on the 2003 heat wave.

Considering most heat-related health problems are “predictable and largely preventable,” according to the World Health Organization, health systems focus on educating people about the best ways to cool down. The WHO includes a long list of advice including opening windows at night and keeping medicines at room temperature.

In more dire situations, Belgium deploys the Red Cross to provide emergency medical assistance and distribute water. France opens more cooling centers — air-conditioned public spaces set up by local authorities — and extends opening hours for swimming pools and green spaces.

“A cooling center is an excellent resource,” Keller wrote, “but a poor 85-year-old with severely arthritic knees or a broken hip is unlikely to be able to descend a seven-story spiral staircase in order to access it.”

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Despite those plans, heat-related deaths still occur — although in lower numbers.

The U.K. saw 2,000 heat-related deaths in 2003, but by 2009 that had fallen to 300, according to the U.K.s heat wave plan. So far this year, there have reportedly been 614 deaths tied to the heat wave. In France, there were around 1,500 deaths in 2018, Keller said, while early reports from last weeks heat wave say there were five deaths.

2. The impact of high temperatures on food production

Europes flowering and harvest dates for cereal crops have already advanced by about one week and more changes are inevitable over the next century.

The impact varies depending on the region.

Crop productivity — and varieties — in Northern Europe may be boosted by longer growing seasons and fewer frosty nights. But heat waves, droughts, forest fires, desertification and decreased crop yields are predicted in the Mediterranean and some parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Thats before even considering pests, diseases, weeds and invasive species, all of which are expected to become more prevalent.

Corn fields scorched by the hot weather and lack of water in Longue-Jumelles, western France | Guillaume Souvant/AFP via Getty Images

In the short to medium term, farmers have some room to adapt. They can vary the timing of their planting and harvesting, and the crops or varieties they choose. Some will start using more diversified crop rotation and water conservation strategies. The EUs Joint Research Centre says that farmers should be “preparing sustainable adaptation measures towards an increase of drought frequency and intensity in the future.”

That means improving irrigation practices and more recycling and storing of supplies. The Commission proposed a regulation last year aiming to increase the uptake of water reuse. It was signed off by EU ministers in June but the opt-outs agreed as part of the deal have set the scene for a battle over the proposal in the next European Parliament, which may well break down along a north-south divide.

In the longer term, boosting agroforestry — growing trees or shrubs close to crops or pastureland — could increase resilience by buffering crops from sun, wind, frost and floods. Trees can also improve soil quality, regenerate land and diversify harvests to fruits, nuts and oils, or leaves for fodder.

3. Cooling overheated cities

City dwellers with a small garden or a nearby park might have felt cooler last week — trees provide shadow and evaporate stored water, which has a cooling effect. But not everyone has access to green spaces in concrete jungles.

“The lack of greenery and water in some parts of the city means that the heat is stored in stone, concrete and roofing for a very long time during a heat wave, and is retained there,” said Bert De Somviele, director of Belgian environmental organization Bos+.

The fountains at Toldbod Plads in Aalborg, Denmark | Henning Bagger/AFP via Getty Images

That means there can be a “difference of up to 10 degrees between so-called heat islands in the city and the greener outskirts.” His organization wants local authorities to plant an extra 6 million trees in Flemish cities to avoid overheating.

Other vegetation might also help. Singapore already has more than 100 hectares of greenery on rooftops and vertical facades — and building regulations aim to double this surface by the year 2030. In Paris, residents can apply for a renewable three-year permit to start urban gardens with the aim of having 100 hectares of plant-entwined rooftops and walls by 2020.

Cooler cities would also help with stifling indoor conditions.

At the moment, fewer than 5 percent of all European households have air-conditioning, compared with 90 percent in the United States. But Europes air conditioner stock is estimated to roughly double within the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency, as record heat becomes more frequent. However, that will boost energy use at a time when the Continent is trying to cut its emissions.

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