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Heat wave: In future it will be even hotter and more detrimental to health

(Vienna, 31-07-2015) Once again, temperatures of more than 30° C are forecast for Vienna for the coming weekend – and in the coming weeks the mercury is set to rise to over 35° C. And so the tropical summer continues. Environmental medicine expert Hans-Peter Hutter of the Institute of Environmental Health at MedUni Vienna points out that, in 30 years time, high temperatures and prolonged hot spells, such as we are experiencing this summer, will be the norm: "In future Austria will have even more hot spells with even higher temperatures."


The number of tropical days in Austria is increasing rapidly: currently there are on average five heat waves every year, as defined by the Kysely criteria. These criteria define a heat wave as being when daytime temperatures of at least 30° C persist for at least three consecutive days. "In just 30 years time we will have 15 such heat waves, that is, on average, at least 45 days with temperatures in excess of 30° C," says Hutter, who also contributed to the comprehensive Austrian climate report. "And, regardless of which calculation model you use, the trend is a rapidly rising one.  In future, the heat we are enduring today will be the norm on many days of the year."

1° warmer = < 6% increase in the mortality rate
Apart from the anticipation of many days of sunbathing weather – the consequences are lethal: Because, according to Hutter, a rise in the average temperature of just 1° C results in an increase in mortality of up to 6%. According to a forecast issued by the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics (ZAMG) ten days ago, July 2015 in Austria will be 3.5 – 4° C above the recorded mean temperature for the month.

"Everyone is affected, even healthy young people but, of course, predominantly infants and those who are old or frail," says the MedUni Vienna expert. Those most at risk are people who are old, live alone and are socially isolated. Hutter: "This group is difficult to reach and, given our aging demographic, with more of us living longer, this is a huge problem for society. There is therefore an urgent need to develop prevention programmes." This view is also backed up by a study (STOPHOT) sponsored by the Austrian Climate Fund, in which MedUni Vienna was also involved.

Behavioural changes "acceptable"
In order to halt climate change and protect future generations, we need to change our behaviours but these changes must be acceptable to people now," stresses Hutter. "And indeed, they would be much easier than forced changes later on – like having to relocate following multiple floods, which is what will happen if we fail to act now."

The most important measures include: reducing CO2 emissions from industry, domestic applications, (road) transport and agriculture (keywords: methane). Even a small change in eating habits can help. Hutter: "It is a win-win situation for people and for the environment. For example, eating less meat is not only better for your health but it also impacts on animal farming and therefore on the environment. It is a similar situation with transport. Less motorized personal transport means better air quality as well as more physical exercise for individuals, if you walk or cycle more. Those would be small but decisive steps in the right direction."

Intelligent solutions for buildings or hot workplaces
At the same time, society needs to start preparing for future challenges with significantly more heat waves, advises the environmental medicine expert: "Most buildings in Austria are not designed to cope with the heat. Much more attention should be paid to this in architectural design and town planning." Traffic-calmed zones, more green spaces and water together with light colours and much less glass. However, generally it is a question of "intelligent solutions" – not only in town planning but also in energy conservation, in domestic cooling systems and even in the way we organize our work. Hutter: "We need to start thinking now about how we can design and organize workplaces that are already exposed to a lot of heat, such as a bakery or laundry, for example, or on construction sites."