Stockholm has had more heat waves in recent years. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Heat waves take a toll in Stockholm

High temperatures linked to climate change are already causing premature deaths in Stockholm. The elderly are most vulnerable.

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Southern Europe is all too familiar with heat-related deaths. The toll in France during the heat wave in the summer of 2003 was nearly 15,000. Although summers are still mild by comparison, Scandinavia is starting to feel the heat too: From 1980 to 2009 approximately 300 people in Stockholm died prematurely because of extreme temperatures.

“Mortality associated with extreme heat during the relevant period doubled, compared to if we had not had some climate change,” says Daniel Oudin Åström, in a press release from Umeå University. He is a PhD student in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Åström and fellow researchers, who published their results in the journal Nature Climate Change, say this means that 1,500 people died from heat waves in all of Sweden, including Stockholm, during the three decades. 

The elderly in the danger zone

The researchers defined a heat wave in Stockholm as a period of over two days with an average 24-hour temperature exceeding 19.6° C.

Daniel Oudin Åström has calculated how many premature deaths in Sweden can be attributed to climate change over the last three decades. (Archive Photo: Umeå University)

High temperatures affect the human body in various ways. When exposed to high heat the body must work harder to maintain its optimal body temperature. 

This can be a quite a strain on some individuals. The elderly are most at risk in the Nordic population.

Preben Ottesen, a department director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, is well aware of similar studies about the link between climate change and mortality in Norway.

“One has to ask whether the deaths caused by the heat waves occurred just a few days or weeks prematurely. These are often people who are already in a terminal phase of their lives,” says Ottesen.

Preben Ottesen doesn’t find the Swedish estimates surprising. (Archive Photo: Norwegian Institute of Public Health)

Others at risk are young children and patients who are already weakened by disease.

A lack of reactions

The figures published in the study indicate that no adaptations to rising temperatures are being made.

Åström thinks that despite years of debates about the warming climate, Swedes haven’t changed their attititudes and willingness to protect themselves against extreme temperatures. 

“The study findings do not suggest any adaptation of the Swedes when it comes to confronting the increasingly warmer climate, such as increased use of air conditioning in elderly housing,” says Åström.

Preben Ottesen concurs on that issue and thinks more steps should be taken to prevent deaths from extreme temperatures in Norway.

“Norway should be better prepared for climate changes. As regards the elderly, we can and should be adapting indoor temperatures.”

Ottesen thinks several measures can be implemented.

“Modern buildings should be designed with as much attention given to summer temperatures as to winter temperatures,” he says.

It’s also important for people to keep well informed about the dangers of extreme temperatures.

“If you have an elderly mother or father you should probably take extra care of them during heat waves. But healthy people have nothing to worry about. Most will experience the warmer temperatures as quite a treat,” says Ottesen.

Nothing extraordinary

The Swedish study used Stockholm’s temperatures from 1900 to 1929 as a kind of 30-year benchmark.

“What’s new about this study is that the researchers had access to very exact figures going all the way back to 1900, which we haven’t had in Norway,” says Ottesen.

But Ottesen is not surprised by the Swedish results.

“The figures presented in this report aren’t all that sensational. Several studies from a number of countries show a link between climate change and mortality,” says Ottesen.

“That link is not in question, and when studying extreme temperatures it is natural to find increased deaths. Not so many were found, but they were indeed quantifiable,” he says.

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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