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New report warns people are increasingly at risk in a continent warming twice as fast as the global average.

Europe is increasingly facing bouts of heat so intense that the human body cannot cope, climate monitors have warned.

The continent endured a record number of “extreme heat stress” days in 2023, the European Union’s Copernicus climate monitoring service and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Monday.

In writing its latest report, Copernicus and the WMO noted last year’s extreme conditions, including a July heatwave that pushed 41 percent of southern Europe into strong, very strong or extreme heat stress – the biggest area of Europe under such conditions in any day on record.

The continent also suffered catastrophic flooding, severe droughts, violent storms and its largest ever forest fires.

“We’re seeing an increasing trend in the number of days with heat stress across Europe and 2023 was no exception, with Europe seeing a record number of days with extreme heat stress,” said Rebecca Emerton, a climate scientist at Copernicus.

For its latest study, Copernicus and WMO used the Universal Thermal Climate Index, which measures the effect of the environment on the human body.

It takes into account not just high temperatures but also humidity, wind speed, sunshine and heat emitted by the surroundings.

The index has 10 different categories of heat and cold stress, with units of degrees Celsius representing a “feels-like” temperature.

Parts of Spain, France, Italy and Greece experienced as many as 10 days of extreme heat stress in 2023, defined as a “feels like” temperature of more than 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Farenheit), at which point immediate action must be taken to avoid conditions such as heat stroke.

Extreme heat poses particular risks to people who work outdoors, the elderly, and those with health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Parts of Italy recorded 7 percent more deaths than normal last July. A 44-year-old man painting road markings in the northern town of Lodi was among those who died after he collapsed at work.

“We see that there is excess mortality when we see such extreme heatwaves like was the case in 2023,” said Alvaro Silva, a climatologist from WMO.

“This increase in mortality… is affecting [the] big majority of European regions. This is a big concern.”

Red Cross workers checking on a homless man during a heatwave in Italy. The man is sitting on the street against a wall. He has taken his shoes off and is barefoot. The three Red Cross workers are in uniforms and speaking to him.
Red Cross workers check on the welfare of a homeless man during a heatwave in Rome last July [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

Heat-related deaths in Europe have soared by about 30 percent in the past 20 years, the report said.

For the world as a whole, last month was the warmest March ever, marking the 10th straight month of historic heat as greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from fossil fuels, continued to push temperatures higher.

The surface temperature of the world’s oceans, which absorb 90 percent of excess heat produced by emissions, also hit a new high, according to Europe’s climate monitoring agency.

In their latest report, scientists warned Europe was warming twice as fast as the global average and that heatwaves were likely to become longer and more powerful in future.

“Current heatwave interventions will soon be insufficient to deal with the expected heat-related health burden,” the report said, noting that Europe’s population was ageing while also becoming increasingly urban.

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