Beijing is currently experiencing higher than average temperatures, with record breaking heat expected tomorrow. Reporters on the ground say the weather feels more like summer than spring, and the 90 degree F weather they saw today is usually not seen until August. Luckily, humidity is low so the heat index will not get too high. Residents are advised to drink plenty of water and reduce time outdoors.
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.
Just three weeks after Columbia’s Mocoa river overflowed and the ensuing landslides killed 300 people, the country is again struggling with mudslides. The city of Manizales is currently experiencing heavy rainfall – the mayor is reporting the the monthly average amount rain has fallen overnight in the region. Electricity, water, and gas have been suspended during the crisis. Over a dozen people have been reported dead, and many more are missing. We will have to monitor this situation and hope that it doen’t escalated to the level of the Mocoa disaster.
Recently, parts of India and Pakistan have been experiencing high temperatures around 40 C (equivalent to 104 F). While this increasingly hot weather isn’t necessarily unusual for the region, many are concerned with the heatwave’s timing coinciding with Ramadan which begins in a month. People who celebrate the holiday often refrain from eating or drinking between dawn and dusk – this means that many might not be consuming water during the day which could lead to dehydration. Ramadan lasts until June 24, so those who abstain will go without hydration for increasingly longer periods as the days get longer. Hopefully this heatwave won’t become a natural disaster, but it’s an interesting example of how human behavior can make hazards more dangerous than they would otherwise be.
Large thunderstorms, known locally as Kalboishakis, are currently threatening Bangladesh and parts of east India. In the past two days, the city of Sylet recorded 11.5 inches of rain. Along with the Kalboishakis often come tornadoes. We normally associate tornadoes with the southern U.S., but during early spring the climate in this region is similar to that of Tornado Alley in the U.S. – warm, moist air at low levels and drier cooler air at higher levels makes for perfect tornado conditions.
So far, no tornado has formed this season, but the risk for disaster is certainly present. Bangladesh has one of the densest populations in the world, which, coupled with weak infrastructure, makes the area particularly vulnerable to natural hazards. In 1989, a deadly tornado ripped through the Manikgani region killing 1,300 people and leaving 80,000 homeless.
Look out for tornados during the peak risk period of April 5th-11th. After the monsoon season hits in May we can expect the risk of tornadoes to decrease.
Category 4 storm Cyclone Debbie is currently heading towards Australia’s northeastern Queensland coast. Residents of low-lying coastal areas in the storm’s path were urged to evacuate before it became too late, and an estimated 3,500 people have already left. The storm was expected to escalate to Category 5 status by its projected landfall Tuesday morning. Already, one death has been tied to the storm. Officials report that Debbie is the largest of its kind since 2011 Cyclone Yasi. Officials fear widespread flooding and extremely high winds powerful enough to blow cars away.
Authorities estimate that one third of Somali children may be forced to drop out of school as the country suffers through its most recent drought. Many families with livestock require extra help from their children to keep their animals alive and feed their families during these difficult times, which means that children must stay at home during school hours. Other families are migrating in hopes of finding more habitable land, taking children out of school in the migration process. Already, 3 million children are missing school and the UN expects more to soon join them. With the worsening drought and impending famine also comes the increased spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera. Approximately 5.5 million people are at risk for such diseases.
Beyond the obvious danger that is involved in lacking water and food, this article highlights the various side effects that will affect generations to come that a natural disaster can bring about.
An estimated 4 million people in Santiago, the capital of Chile, have been left without clean drinking water. Yesterday morning, 60% of households woke up to dry taps. This is due to a series of rainstorms and mudslides that have caused massive flooding in the region. The weather in the mountainous area remained “very bad,” and the company responsible for providing the city with drinking water was unable to give an estimate as to when the problem would be resolved. As the local population waits for the rivers to run clear again, they will rely on water provided by authorities. The BBC is reporting that many shops have already run out of bottled water. So far, three people have died in the flooding and 19 people are missing.
A series of violent storms are currently battering the coasts of France and Spain. This has resulted in loss of power in areas and damage to infrastructure. As of yesterday, 250,000 homes have been left without electricity in southwest France, while the Atlantic coastline in Portugal, northern Spain and France have been experiencing storm-driven waves and high winds of around 150 km/hr. Damage to a stadium’s roof in Spain caused the postponement of a futbol match. The pictures in the article show high waves hitting the shoreline and the damaging effects of high winds. Read the Al Jazeera story here.