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

The 2003 European heat wave was 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.

Change of temperature in Europe from the average.



In France, 14,802  people—mostly elderly—died from heat, according to the French National Institute of Health. France does not commonly have very hot summers, particularly in the northern areas, but seven days with temperatures of more than were recorded in Auxerremarker, Yonnemarker between July and August 2003. As a consequence 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 even most single-family homes and residential facilities built in the last 50 years were not equipped with air conditioning. Furthermore, while there are contingency plans for a variety of catastrophes and natural events, high heat had never been considered a major hazard and so such plans for heat waves did not exist at the time.

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 main cause for 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 (being built in stone, concrete or bricks) don't warm too much and radiate heat at night. Thus, artificial air conditioning is usually unnecessary. During this heat wave, temperatures remained at record highs even at night, preventing the usual cooling cycle. Elderly persons had never faced such extreme heat before and didn't know how to react or were too impaired to make the necessary adaptations themselves, while elderly persons with family support and those in nursing homes were more likely to have someone else who could make the heat accommodations for them. This lead to statistically improbable survival rates with the weakest strata 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 and 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 onfamilies 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.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, a record-breaking was recorded in Brogdale Orchards, one mile (1.6 km) southwest of Favershammarker, Kentmarker on 10 August 2003. The previous highest recorded temperature was , recorded in Cheltenhammarker.

A retrospective analysis published in 2005 showed that the heat wave caused 2,139 excess deaths in the UK for the period 4–13 August 2003.

Rail travel was widely disrupted across the country when fears of rails buckling in the extreme heat led to Network Rail imposing many speed restrictions. There had been one or two isolated incidents where minor derailments had been attributed to deformed rails due to unusually high temperatures. Air temperatures of 30°C and above can lead to rail head temperatures of 50°C to 60°C in direct sunlight. This is enough to cause steel rail to visibly deform over a long length, particularly with continuously welded rail sections.


18,257 people died in Italy, where temperatures were at around in most cities for weeks, according to Other sources reported a much lower figure, not only for Italy, but for other countries as well. New Scientist magazine reported 4,200 deaths in Italy and Spain attributable to the 2003 heatwave. The Guardian reported 1,000 deaths in Italy, 4,000 in Spain.


There were extensive forest fires in Portugal. Five percent of the countryside and ten percent of the forests (215,000 hectares) were destroyed, an estimated . Eighteen people died in the fires and there were an estimated 1866 to 2039 heat related deaths over all. Temperatures reached as high as in Amarelejamarker. The first of August was the hottest day in centuries, with night temperatures well above . A freak storm developed on the southern region during that dawn. A hot strong saharan wind blew during the subsequent days of that week.

The Netherlands

There were about 1,500 [legitimate citation needed] heat related deaths in the Netherlandsmarker, 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. The highest temperature recorded this heatwave was on the 7th of August, when in Arcenmarker, in Limburg, a temperature of 37.7°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.


There were 141 deaths in Spain . Temperature records were broken in various cities including in Jerez, , with the heat wave being more felt in typically cooler northern Spain. Thus, record temperatures were reached in Gerona , in Burgosmarker , in San Sebastiánmarker, in Pontevedramarker and in Barcelonamarker. In Sevillamarker was although the record was in 1995 with .


In Germany, a record temperature of was recorded at Roth bei Nürnbergmarker, Bavariamarker. 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 Mannheimmarker or Frankenthalmarker), temperatures over were reported, but not recognized by official statistics. With only half the normal rainfall, rivers were at their lowest this century, and shipping could not navigate the Elbe or Danube. Around 300 people—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 was recorded in Gronomarker, Graubündenmarker.

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

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.


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