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Europe is warming up faster than any other continent, and the heat is deadly

People in the streets of Rom in June 2022. Heat-related deaths in Europe have increased by about 30% in the last 20 years, according to a new report.
Alessandra Tarantino
People in the streets of Rom in June 2022. Heat-related deaths in Europe have increased by about 30% in the last 20 years, according to a new report.

Europe is heating up about twice as quickly as the Earth as a whole, and that heat is killing large numbers of people during the summer months, according to a new report by European climate experts.

The number of heat-related deaths on the continent has increased by at least 30% in the last 20 years, the analysis by Europe's Copernicus Climate Change Service and the United Nations estimates.

"The impact on human health is more pronounced in cities, where most people are living," says José Álvaro Silva of the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization. Not only are populations concentrated in urban areas, but cities are warming more quickly than rural areas because buildings and roads stay hotter for longer.

The summer of 2023 was a clear example of how dangerous heat can be for Europeans. During a heat wave in July, intense heat and humidity made it feel like it was 110 degrees or hotter in nearly half of Southern Europe.

That's the kind of weather that can kill people if they don't have access to air conditioning. The final death toll from the heat wave is still being calculated, but is almost certainly in the tens of thousands, researchers say. One study estimated there were upwards of 60,000 people died prematurely because of the July 2023 heat wave.

"Extreme heat causes the greatest mortality of all extreme weather," says Chris Hewitt, the head of the World Meteorological Organization.

Europe's rapid warming is being driven by a trio of factors. The continent is close to the Arctic, which is the fastest-warming region on Earth. It is also naturally situated near warm ocean and atmospheric currents – that's why London's winters are so much more temperate than Chicago's, even though London is farther north.

But that also means Europe is getting dangerously hot more quickly than places at similar latitudes, explains Samantha Burgess, the deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service.

"We are continuing to see new records broken all the time," Burgess says.

The danger posed by heat has many European cities scrambling to make sure residents have access to air conditioning – and reliable electricity to power that air conditioning on the hottest days. Some of the most deadly heat waves worldwide have involved blackouts, when the power grid fails during extremely hot weather.

On that front, there's good news in the new report: Europe is increasingly turning to solar and wind for its electricity, and those sources of energy are increasingly reliable. 2023 was the second year in a row that the continent generated more of its electricity from renewables than from burning fossil fuels.

The shift away from oil, gas and coal for electricity is helping Europe cut its emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gasses, which will help curb future deadly warming.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.