Natural disasters such as hurricanes, blizzards or tornadoes might be more dramatic and attention grabbing than a heat wave, but in reality, the heat may be capable of claiming more lives than even these violent storms.
Take, for example, the catastrophic 2003 heat wave that struck Europe and killed an estimated 70,000 people. According to medical historian Richard Keller, a massive high-pressure system parked over Europe for 3 weeks that August to produce the hottest summer weather in more than 500 years. It was so hot that electrical cables melted, nuclear reactors could not be cooled, water pumps failed and museum specimens liquefied.
France, in particular, was hard hit by the deadly 2003 heat wave, when temperatures surpassed 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 7 days. According to official tallies, 14,802 people died in Paris during that heat wave.
"Measured by mortality, it was the worst natural disaster in contemporary France," said Keller, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of medical history and bioethics who is researching the effects of the heat wave on Paris.
By comparison, Hurricane Katrina and its floods, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, exacted a death toll of 1,836 people.
In the course of his research, Keller discovered that the greatest risk was to people who lived on their own, calling this “the single biggest factor for dying” from the heat wave. The social dynamics of death from extreme heat, Keller continued, can be instructive as heat waves seem to be occurring more frequently and with greater intensity and duration.
"Vulnerability to extreme events is more complex than we know and we need to think about broader scale adaptation," Keller said, adding that we build homes, apartments and public housing with more attention to staying warm in the winter than keeping cool during the dog days of summer.
"We have to recognize that heat kills far more people than the cold and that those most likely to die are people on the social margins of society," Keller concluded.
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