105 degrees in France: Why Europe is so vulnerable to extreme heat
By Umair Irfan
This week’s sweltering weather is concerning because there are several key factors that make people in Europe vulnerable to extreme heat.
High temperatures make it harder for the human body to shed heat, which can lead to dangerous conditions like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, as well as organ failure. But the biggest impacts of heat are indirect. It makes breathing more difficult. It worsens air quality. It stresses the circulatory system.
So heat turns out to be most dangerous for people with underlying illnesses and without access to adequate cooling. During the 2003 heat wave in Europe, the elderly comprised the largest share of the casualties, many with preexisting health conditions.
Europe is also not a region known for especially high temperatures, so many parts of the continent lack the resources to cope. Many buildings don’t have air conditioning and aren’t designed with passive cooling in mind. In Germany, as few as 2 percent of homes are air conditioned.
Another factor to consider is that much of Europe is densely urbanized, with 72 percent of the European Union’s population living in cities, towns, and suburbs. Steel, concrete, and asphalt readily absorb heat and cause cities to warm up hotter than their rural surroundings, creating heat islands. As the populations of these cities grow, so does the number of people facing risks from extreme heat. And increasingly, it’s not just the sick and elderly who are vulnerable, but outdoor workers like farmers, landscapers, and construction crews.