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European summer heatwave 2003

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Introduction

It is estimated that around 20,000 people died as a result of the heatwave in August 2003, which is said to have been the hottest in Europe for perhaps 500 years. The UK experienced its highest temperature on record.

Areas affected


Map of Europe   Map of British Isles
Fig 1: Europe.  

Fig 2: British Isles

Physical impacts


Low river flows and lake levels

The River Danube in Serbia fell to its lowest level in 100 years. This allowed World War 2 bombs and tanks to be revealed for the first time. These caused a danger to people swimming in the rivers.

Reservoirs and rivers used for public water supply and hydroelectric schemes either dried up or ran very low.

River-depth gauge   Plant in dry, cracked soil
Fig 3: River at low flow.   Fig 4: Dry ground.

 

Forest fires

The lack of rainfall meant that very dry conditions occurred over much of Europe during the Summer of 2003. Forest fires broke out in many countries in Europe.

In Portugal 215,000 hectares area of forest were destroyed. This is an area the same size as Luxembourg.

It is estimated that millions of tonnes of topsoil were eroded in the year after the fires as the protection of the forest cover was removed. This has made river water quality poor when the ash and soil washed into rivers.

The satellite picture shown in Figure 6 shows forest fires in southern Portugal and Spain in September 2003. The fires are shown by the red dots and smoke is in white.

  Forest fire
    Fig 5: Forest fires

The lack of rainfall meant that very dry conditions occurred over much of Europe during the Summer of 2003. Forest fires broke out in many countries in Europe.

In Portugal 215,000 hectares area of forest were destroyed. This is an area the same size as Luxembourg.

It is estimated that millions of tonnes of topsoil were eroded in the year after the fires as the protection of the forest cover was removed. This has made river water quality poor when the ash and soil washed into rivers.

The satellite picture shown in Figure 6 shows forest fires in southern Portugal and Spain in September 2003. The fires are shown by the red dots and smoke is in white.

Forest fires in Portugal
Fig 6: Forest fires in Portugal, September 2003.
Picture courtesy of NASA-GSFC

Movie loop showing an animation of the forest fires (warning: large file)
Courtesy of NASA-GSFC] 

Melting glaciers

Extreme snow and glacier-melt in the European Alps led to increased rock and ice falls in the mountains.

Human impacts

 

Human health

About 11,000 people died due to the heat in France, which led to a shortage of space to store dead bodies in mortuaries. Temporary mortuaries were set up in refrigeration lorries.

There were also heat-related deaths in the UK (900), Spain (100), Portugal (1,300), Italy (2,000), Holland (1,500) and Germany (300). Elderly people are especially likely to suffer from the effects of heat.

Heat strokes
Normally we sweat, and this keeps us cool on hot days. On very hot days our bodies can sweating. This can lead to headaches, dizziness and even death.

Dehydration
This is the loss of water from a body. It can cause tiredness and problems with breathing and heart rates.

Sunburn
Damage to the skin which can be painful and may increase the risks of getting skin cancer.

Heat Health Watch
The Met Office provides the Department of Health with heatwave warnings (Heat-Health Watch) to prepare the NHS, health professionals, carers and the general public for the effects of extreme heat.  

Air pollution
It is thought that one third of the deaths caused by the heatwave in the UK were caused by poor air quality.

Smoking chimney   Water standpipe
Fig 7: Pollution.   Fig 8: Water standpipe.

Water supplies
Drinking water supplies were affected in some parts of the UK and hosepipe bans introduced.

Effects on tourism in the UK

Many parts of the UK reported increased levels of tourism. UK residents decided to holiday in the UK where the weather was unusually dry and hot, rather than travelling abroad.

People died while swimming in rivers and lakes trying to cool off from the hot weather.

The London Eye closed on one day as it became too hot in the cabins.

Bathers splashing in sea   Ice cream seller
Fig 9: Summer beach scene.   Fig 10: Ice cream sales soared.

Effects on agriculture

Many chickens, pigs and cows died during the heat in Europe and crops failed in the dry conditions. This led to higher prices for food in the year after the hot weather. It is thought to have cost European farming 13.1 billions euros (£7 billion).

Effects on transport

Trains
Some railway tracks buckled in the heat in the UK and thousands of people faced delays. Some trains broke down and conditions became unbearable inside, particularly on the London Underground. Speed restrictions were imposed on some routes to prevent trains from derailing.

Roads
In some places road surfaces melted, which caused traffic problems, and some roads had to be resurfaced.

Shipping
Large boats were prevented from sailing on some rivers in eastern Europe as river levels were so low.

River levels were low enough to allow people to illegally cross some rivers which form natural borders between neighbouring countries.

Reduced power consumption

Rising river water temperatures and lack of water caused two nuclear power plants to close down in Germany. These rely on water for cooling in the power generation process.

Theory

 

Weather map

Figure 11 shows a weather map for midday on 5 August 2003. It shows an area of high pressure over most of western Europe. Air is moving around the high in a clockwise direction, bring a hot, dry tropical continental air mass to the UK at this time.

This pattern occurred for much of the rest of the month. High pressure areas usually bring little cloud and warm conditions in summer.

 

Surface chart for midday on 5 August 2003
  Fig 11: Weather chart for midday on 5 August 2003.

Satellite imagery

The satellite images below confirm that there is very little cloud over most of Europe.

Figure 12 shows a visible satellite image of north-west Europe at 2 p.m. on 5 August 2003. Visible satellites show what you would see if you were in space looking down on the Earth. White areas show were there is cloud, the brighter the shading the deeper the cloud. The dark areas show cloud free areas. On Figure 12, the darker areas over most of Europe shown that the area has thin or little cloud.

Figure 13 shows an infrared satellite image for north-west Europe at 2 p.m. on 5 August 2003. Infrared satellite images measure the temperature of the cloud or ground surface. The dark areas show surfaces that are warm and where there is no cloud. The whiter shading indicates cold cloud. The darker the shading of the land, the hotter it is.

Visible satellite image   Infrared satellite image
Fig 12: Visible satellite image at 2 p.m. on 5 August 2003.   Fig 13: Infrared satellite image at 2 p.m. on 5 August 2003.

More information

InformationMore about satellites

Maximum temperatures

Many parts of Europe saw their temperature records broken during this summer.

European rainfall

Rainfall over much of Europe was below what is normally expected during the months of June, July and August. The long-lasting high pressure system tended to reduce the amount of rainfall that fell.

Figure 16 shows how much below average rainfall was in the month of August 2003 across Europe. 'Low rainfall' means 20-40% less rainfall than normal. 'Very low rainfall' means more than 40% less rainfall than normal. Most of the UK and central Europe received very low rainfall which had many impacts.

  European rainfall, August 2003
    Fig 16: Rainfall across Europe in August 2003.




Responses to the European heatwave

Responses discussion

  • In the UK, a joint Met Office/Department of Health project called the Heat-Health Watch now gives advanced warning of UK hot weather. It operates every summer from 1 June to 15 September.
  • The French government plans to improve its prevention, surveillance and alert system for people such as the elderly living alone. Extra funding will be made available.
  • France requested aid from the European Union to deal with the effects of the heatwave.
  • Public water supply shortages occurred in several countries, including the UK and Croatia, which led to the banning of use of hose pipes.
  • TV news, internet and newspapers informed the public on how to cope with the heat - drinking plenty of water, wearing cool clothing, staying in the shade in the middle of the day.
  • Network Rail in the UK imposed speed restrictions for trains when the temperature was above 30 °C. This was to help avoid trains derailing when railway lines might have buckled.
  • Workers around Europe altered their working hours. Some dustmen started earlier to pick up rapidly decomposing rubbish from the streets.
  • Summers as hot as 2003 could happen every other year by the year 2050 as a result of climate change due to human activities.
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