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2003 European heat wave
Dates June 2003 to August 2003
Areas affected Mostly western Europe

The 2003 European heat wave is one of the hottest summers on record in Europe, especially in France. The heat wave led to health crises in several countries and combined with drought to create a crop shortfall in Southern Europe. More than 37,451 Europeans died as a result of the heat wave.[1]

Change of temperature in Europe from the average.





In France, there were 14,802 heat-related deaths (mostly among the elderly) during the heat wave, according to the French National Institute of Health.[2][3] France does not commonly have very hot summers, particularly in the northern areas,[4] but seven days with temperatures of more than 40 °C (104 °F) were recorded in Auxerre, Yonne between July and August 2003. Because of the usually relatively mild summers, most people did not know how to react to very high temperatures (for instance, with respect to rehydration), and most single-family homes and residential facilities built in the last 50 years were not equipped with air conditioning. Furthermore, while there were contingency plans for a variety of natural and man-made catastrophes, high temperatures had never been considered a major hazard.

The heat wave occurred in August, a month in which many people, including government ministers and physicians, are on holiday. Many bodies were not claimed for many weeks because relatives were on holiday. A refrigerated warehouse outside Paris was used by undertakers as they did not have enough space in their own facilities. On 3 September 2003, fifty-seven bodies still left unclaimed in the Paris area were buried.

The high number of deaths can be explained by the conjunction of seemingly unrelated events. Most nights in France are cool, even in summer. As a consequence, houses (usually of stone, concrete or brick construction) do not warm too much during the daytime and radiate minimal heat at night, and air conditioning is usually unnecessary. During the heat wave, temperatures remained at record highs even at night, preventing the usual cooling cycle. Elderly persons living by themselves had never faced such extreme heat before and did not know how to react or were too mentally or physically impaired by the heat to make the necessary adaptations themselves. Elderly persons with family support or those residing in nursing homes were more likely to have others who could make the adjustments for them. This led to statistically improbable survival rates with the weakest group having fewer deaths than more physically fit persons; most of the heat victims came from the group of elderly persons not requiring constant medical care or living alone without immediate family.

That shortcomings of the nation's health system could allow such a death toll is a matter of controversy in France. The administration of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin laid the blame on families who had left their elderly behind without caring for them, the 35-hour workweek, which affected the amount of time doctors could work and family practitioners vacationing in August. Many companies traditionally closed in August, so people had no choice about when to vacation. Family doctors were still in the habit of vacationing at the same time. It is not clear that more physicians would have helped as the main limitation was not the health system but locating old people needing assistance.

The opposition, as well as many of the editorials of the local press, have blamed the administration. Many blamed Health Minister Jean-François Mattei for failing to return from his vacation when the heat wave became serious, and his aides for blocking emergency measures in public hospitals (such as the recalling of physicians). A particularly vocal critic was Dr. Patrick Pelloux, head of the union of emergency physicians, who blamed the Raffarin administration for ignoring warnings from health and emergency professionals and trying to minimize the crisis. Mattei lost his ministerial post in a cabinet reshuffle on 31 March 2004.


There were extensive forest fires in Portugal. Five percent of the countryside and ten percent of the forests (215,000 hectares[3]) were destroyed, an estimated 4,000 square kilometres (1,500 sq mi). Eighteen people died in the fires and there were an estimated 1866 to 2039 heat related deaths over all.[5] Temperatures reached as high as 48 °C (118 °F) in Amareleja. The first of August was the hottest day in centuries, with night temperatures well above 30 °C (86 °F). A freak storm developed on the southern region during that dawn. A hot strong saharan wind blew during the subsequent days of that week.[6][7]


There were about 1,500[3][8] heat related deaths in the Netherlands, again largely the elderly. The heat wave here broke no records, although 4 tropical weather designated days in mid-July, preceding the official wave, are not counted due to a cool day in between and the nature of the Netherlands specification/definition of a heat wave.[8] The highest temperature recorded this heatwave was on the 7th of August, when in Arcen, in Limburg, a temperature of 37.8°C was reached, 0.8°C below the national record (since 1704). It happened only twice that a higher temperature was recorded. On the 8th of August a temperature of 37.7°C was recorded, and the 12th of August saw a temperature of 37.2°C.[9]


There were 141 deaths in Spain[citation needed]. Temperature records were broken in various cities including 45.1 °C (113.2 °F) in Jerez , 41 °C (106 °F), with the heat wave being more felt in typically cooler northern Spain. Thus, record temperatures were reached in Gerona,[10] 38.8 °C (101.8 °F) in Burgos,[11] 38.6 °C (101.5 °F) in San Sebastián,[11] 36 °C (97 °F) in Pontevedra [12] and 36 °C (97 °F) in Barcelona.[13] In Sevilla was 45.2 °C (113.4 °F) although the record was in 1995 with 46.6 °C (115.9 °F).[14]


In Germany, a record temperature of 40.4 °C (104.7 °F) was recorded at Roth bei Nürnberg, Bavaria.[citation needed] But some experts suspect that the highest temperatures occurred in the upper Rhine plain, which is known for very high temperatures. At some stations (private stations, for example Mannheim or Frankenthal), temperatures over 41 °C (106 °F) were reported, but not recognized by official statistics. With only half the normal rainfall, rivers were at their lowest this century,[citation needed] and shipping could not navigate the Elbe or Danube. Around 300 people[3]—mostly elderly—died during the 2003 heatwave in Germany.


Melting glaciers in the Alps caused avalanches and flash floods in Switzerland. A new nationwide record temperature of 41.5 °C (106.7 °F) was recorded in Grono, Graubünden.[15]

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom in general was enjoying a warm summer with temperatures well above average. However, Atlantic cyclones brought cool and wet weather for a short while at the end of July and very beginning of August before the temperatures started to increase substantially from 3rd August onwards. Several weather records were broken in the United Kingdom, including the UK's highest recorded temperature - 38.5 °C (101.3 °F) at Brogdale orchards near Faversham in Kent on 10th August. London also recorded 38.0 °C (100.4 °F). Scotland also broke its highest temperature record with 32.9 °C (91.2 °F) recorded in Greycrook in the Scottish borders on the 9th August.[16]

Effects on crops

Crops suffered from drought in Southern Europe, but in the north they did very well.


The following shortfalls in wheat harvest occurred as a result of the long drought.[citation needed]

  • France - 20%
  • Italy - 13%
  • United Kingdom - 12%
  • Ukraine - 75% (Unknown if affected by heatwave or an early freeze that year.)
  • Moldova - 80%

Many other countries had shortfalls of 5–10%, and the EU total production was down by 10 million tonnes, or 10%. [legitimate citation needed]


The heat wave greatly accelerated the ripening of grapes; also, the heat dehydrates the grapes, making for more concentrated juice. By mid-August, the grapes in certain vineyards had already reached their nominal sugar content, possibly resulting in 12°–12.5° wines (see alcoholic degree). Because of that, and also of the impending change to rainy weather, the harvest was started much earlier than usual (e.g. in mid-August for areas that are normally harvested in September).

It is predicted that the wines from 2003, although in scarce quantity, will have exceptional quality, especially in France. The heat wave made Hungary fare extremely well in the Vinalies 2003 International wine contest: a total of nine gold and nine silver medals were awarded to Hungarian winemakers.[17]

Effects on the sea

The anomalous overheating affecting the atmosphere, also caused anomalies on sea surface stratification in the Mediterranean Sea and on the surface currents also. A seasonal current of the Central Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ionian Stream (AIS), resulted modified in its path and intensity. The AIS is important for the reproduction biology of important pelagic commercial fish species, so the heatwave may have influenced indirectly the stocks of these species. Further studies will be addressed in this direction.[18]


  1. ^ SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: More than 52,000 Europeans Died from Heat in Summer 2003, Earth Policy Institute, July 28, 2006 ([ data)
  2. ^ Earth Policy Institute article; data for more countries:
  3. ^ a b c d [1]
  4. ^ CIA-The World Factbook,
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Portugal Diário" (in (Portuguese)). Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  7. ^ InterScience
  8. ^ a b "View Article". Eurosurveillance. Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  9. ^ KNMI, Klimatologie, Job Verkaik, Jon Nellestijn, Rob Sluijter. "KNMI - Daggegevens van het weer in Nederland". Archived from the original on 2009-08-11. Retrieved 2009-08-06. 
  10. ^ History for Girona, Spain. Weather Underground. 2003-08-13. Last Retrieved 2007-02-09.
  11. ^ a b "Valores extremos - Agencia Estatal de Meteorología - AEMET. Gobierno de España" (in (Spanish)). Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  12. ^ History for Vigo, Spain. Weather Underground. August 2003. Last Retrieved 2007-02-09.
  13. ^ History for Barcelona, Spain. Weather Underground. 2003-08-13. Last Retrieved 2007-02-09.
  14. ^ "Agencia Estatal de Meteorología - AEMET. Gobierno de España" (in (Spanish)). 2010-02-27. Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  15. ^ MeteoSwiss - Switzerland
  16. ^ "Great weather events: Temperatures records fall in summer 2003". Met Office. 2008-11-19. Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  17. ^ "Union des oenologues de France". Retrieved 2010-03-15. 
  18. ^ "Effects of 2003 heatwave on the Sea Surface in Central Mediterranean". Retrieved 2010-03-15. 


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