Direct Effects of Temperature Extremes Heat Waves and Cold Spells

The very old and very young, and those with preexisting health concerns, are the most at risk due to thermal extremes. At one end of the spectrum, unprecedented heat waves have resulted in a significant increase in the number of heat-related mortality cases. Such hazards are made worse by the ''urban heat island'' effect in cities, where heat stored in cement and metal materials during the day is released at night. On the other hand, overexposure to extreme cold temperatures can lead to frostbite and death. Although climate change is anticipated to increase average winter temperatures and thus decrease wintertime mortality, the overall direct risks of thermal extremes are considered to be adverse.

In the summer of 2003, Europeans experienced record high temperatures, the consequences of which were an estimated 27,000 deaths due to heat stress, with over 15,000 of these in France alone. Hot, dry summers also had an impact on agricultural productivity, with farmers in Europe in general and France in particular sustaining high crop losses. In addition, power supplies were affected due to air conditioners being run at full capacity. As demand for electricity rose, it became increasingly difficult to cool power plants, resulting in reduced production. Some power plants were obliged to cut back their output, while others were completely shut down. In France, a number of nuclear plants had to be either shut down or sprayed externally with water for several days on end. These same record temperatures were also blamed for severe wildfires that occurred across Portugal, Spain, and France, where economic losses rose to about $US15 billion. Elsewhere, excessive heat was blamed for wildfires on Canada's west coast that were deemed to be the worst experienced in that country in half a century (McGuire 2004; Munich Re 2003).

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