Residents in London and the south-east of England will be more likely to suffer the deadly effects of warmer summers caused by climate change than people from the rest of the country, scientists have found.
In a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers from Imperial College London studied temperature records and mortality figures from 2001 to 2010 to find out which parts of England and Wales were worst affected by higher temperatures.
“It’s well known that warm weather can increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory deaths, especially in elderly people”, explained Dr James Bennett, lead author of the study.
“Climate change is expected to raise average temperatures and increase temperature variability, so we can expect it to have effects on mortality even in countries like the UK with a temperate climate.”
In July last year, a heatwave killed as many as 760 people in just nine days in Britain. Meanwhile in August 2003, a record-breaking heatwave killed more than 20,000 people across Europe.
Attempting to understand how future climate change will increase the risks of such tragedies occurring again, the scientists calculated that across England and Wales as a whole, a summer 2C warmer than average would cause around 1,550 extra deaths.
Just over half of these people would be aged over 85 and 62% would be women.
The team also found that these effects would be distributed unevenly, with 95 out of 376 districts accounting for half of all deaths.
They found that in the most vulnerable areas, in London and the south-east, the odds of dying from cardiovascular or respiratory causes increased by over 10% for every 1C rise in temperature.
The most affected areas included poorer districts of London such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, where the odds of dying more than doubled on very hot days.
By comparison, in the same scenario in districts in the far north resulted in no increase in deaths. Curiously, the researchers say there is no clear reason for this disparity.
“The reasons for the uneven distribution of deaths in warm weather need to be studied”, said Prof Majid Ezzati, who led the research.
“We might expect that people in areas that tend to be warmer would be more resilient, because they adapt by installing air conditioning for example. These results show that this isn’t the case in England and Wales.
“It might be due to more vulnerable individuals being concentrated in some areas, or it might be related to differences at the community level, like quality of healthcare, that require government action.”
A separate study, published in August, suggested that climate change will cause increasingly frequent and more severe heatwaves around the world over the next 30 years.
Alarmingly, the study found that this short-term increase would happen regardless of any efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
However, under a longer-term high-emission scenario, the researchers warn that by 2100, 85% of the Earth will suffer from extreme heatwaves.
“While climate change is a global phenomenon, resilience and vulnerability to its effects are highly local”, Ezzati added.
“Many things can be done at the local level to reduce the impact of warm spells, like alerting the public and planning for emergency services. Detailed information about which communities are most at risk from high temperatures can help to inform these strategies.”