I chose to study the 2003 heatwave in France. During the summer of 2015, I lived in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. There I lived through the most extreme temperatures I had ever experienced (without A/C and in a 3 story walk-up apartment!). This was the second hottest summer on record after 2003. While I was there I would complain about the unbearable heat, but locals would tell me that it was nothing like the canicule of 2003.
The summer of 2003 was Europe’s hottest summer on record since 1543. Unusually high temperatures combined with a number of social factors turned this heat wave into a particularly deadly disaster, making it one of the ten deadliest natural disasters in Europe for the last 100 years and the worst in the last 50 years. All of Western Europe was affected, but France suffered the highest concentration and the second highest total number of casualties, where nearly 15,000 deaths were recorded between August 1st and 20th, 2003.
Urban centers, particularly Paris, experienced the highest number of fatalities. This is mainly attributed to the urban heat island effect. A combination of lack of vegetation, decreased air flow, and heat absorbent concrete can make cities significantly hotter than their surrounding area.
The single most vulnerable group were the elderly. A reported 82.5% of deaths correspond to people age 75 and above, and the average age of fatality was 85.1 years. Social connectivity also had a major impact on mortality rate. It is estimated that over 90% of heatwave victims lived alone, and 25% of victims had no family or friends. In general, those hit the hardest by the heatwave were lower income elders living alone, although France did see a large number of deaths in retirement homes as well.
The timing of the heatwave was a huge factor. In August, many French families go on vacation, often for multiple weeks. This meant that people living alone or people with fewer resources were left behind at home without neighbors. This ties back into the social connectivity factor: a neighbor will often notice when something is wrong (i.e., newspapers left outside the door, no sighting in multiple days, etc). Sadly, without neighbors to check in on them, many people died alone in their apartments, and many bodies were not even discovered until vacationers returned home weeks later and smelled something wrong.
There was mass public outrage as death tolls were released to the media, and many people blamed the government for inaction. Health Ministry officials resigned, and the government devised a mitigation framework to prevent a heatwave from escalating to such a disaster in the future. For example, now vulnerable neighborhoods have cooling stations, and retirement homes are required to have air conditioning. Most importantly authorities now use an alert system that predicts a heatwave three days in advance and broadcasts repetitive warning messages through the media. Another shift in their heat-related emergency preparedness is the change in public perception. After witnessing the horrors of 2003, French citizens know to take heat seriously and to look out for each other.