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Science & Space

Europe recalls lethal 2003 heat wave

Continent looks at the causes, solutions of weather-related tragedy

By Camille Feanny and Kiesha Porter

• NASA Earth Observatory: European Heat WAveexternal link
Disasters (General)
Global Change

(CNN) -- It happened one year ago.

Neither Europeans, nor people around the world, can erase the memory of the thousands of people who lost their lives in the worst weather disaster to hit the region in centuries. From France to the Netherlands, Britain to Belgium, the searing temperatures baked the ancient cities for weeks last summer through July and August 2003.

Officials struggled to keep an accurate count of the dead. But a tally of government records estimate the death toll from between twenty to thirty-five thousand people -- the majority dying in the hottest period during the first two weeks in August.

The worst hit was France which lost more than 14,000 of it mostly elderly population in the unrelenting heat recorded as high as 104 degrees - temperatures that didn't cool down even at night. The event marks the 2003 European heat wave as the hottest summer in the northern hemisphere. But what was the cause?

Scientists have cited a variety of factors that all conspired to create disastrous results. Some mention unusual weather patterns similar to El Nino, others say that global warming is to blame.

According to Kevin Trenberth, Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, there are a few possible causes.

"A change in global sea temperatures and unusual conditions in the tropics and the tropical area of the Indian Ocean was a factor in creating and sustaining settled air conditions over Europe," he says. "In these conditions air doesn't move around as much and winds do not pick up. Furthermore stagnated air creates perfect conditions for air pollutants to emerge."

That stagnant air coupled with the unrelenting heat, say some scientists, was responsible for a large number of the deaths. Pollutants like smog, dust, car and factory exhaust mixed with the stagnant air, creating a toxic potion for sensitive populations, like young children, the elderly, and people with asthma. Add to that the fact that most buildings are not air conditioned, and the combination proved to be a recipe for disaster.

French authorities also lay part of the blame on inadequate care for the elderly in hospitals and rest homes, and a lack of adequate medical personnel to handle a crisis of that magnitude. Reports contend that many people died of heat stroke, dehydration, and other heat-related problem due to a delay in receiving medical care.

Heat waves are silent killers that claim the lives of more people each year in Europe than disasters like floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined. In addition to the human casualties -- the intense heat cost billions of dollars in damage due to lost crops, dead livestock, and wildfires.

Governments throughout Western Europe have made plans to avert a repeat of last year -- like creating temporary beaches, erecting showers, and planting additional trees.

"There are mitigation programs, like opening up supermarkets and malls and giving people access to cooler conditions if the circumstances arose again." says Trenberth.

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