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Heatwave in Spain: Why are so many people dying?

The Local Spain
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Heatwave in Spain: Why are so many people dying?
A nurse sprays water to cool off an old woman at the geriatric hospital. According to Spanish research, 90 percent of those who die from heat exposure are over the age of 74. (Photo by FRED DUFOUR / AFP)

At least 360 people have lost their lives in Spain as a result of the extremely high temperatures the country is currently experiencing. But is this heatwave more deadly than others?


Extreme heat has almost been a constant in Spain since before the summer season even began this year. 

The mercury had already hit 40 C in large swathes of the interior in May, and the country recorded its second ever earliest ola de calor (heatwave) before mid June. 

There have been plenty of very hot weather spells in between, even though for meteorologists to officially consider scorching weather to be a heatwave, the period of extreme heat must last at least three days and temperatures must exceed seasonal thresholds by 10 percent.


Currently Spain is ending an arduous, destructive and deadly nine-day heatwave that’s affected the entire mainland as well as the Balearic and Canary Islands.

One of the most alarming figures is the 360 people in Spain who have died from heat-related consequences during this latest heatwave, with fatalities from over the weekend still not added to the total.

That death toll seems exceptionally high but heat-related deaths are in fact nothing new to the Iberian Peninsula.

Every year, an average of 1,312 people lose their lives in Spain for reasons attributed to high temperatures, according to research conducted by Madrid’s Carlos III University.

Last year, 1,298 heat-related fatalities were recorded during the whole summer of 2021.

This year, the figure certainly looks set to be higher as from the start of May to July 15th 2022, Spain's heat-related death toll stood at 1,274. 

There are still two weeks left in July, the whole of August and September, which may take the death rate to its highest on record.

The figure of 360 heat-related deaths in just five days (from July 10th to Friday July 15th, 123 on Friday alone) is alarmingly high, and the fact that this heatwave has been longer and more incessantly hot largely explains why so many lives have been lost in so little time. 

"Global warming is causing more intense extreme temperatures, a greater probability of exceeding a heatwave temperature threshold and higher chances that this threshold will be exceeded for a longer period of time," wrote physicist David Barriopedro of Spain's National Research Council (CSIC).

In other words, heatwaves in Spain are more frequent, they last longer and they're hotter.

READ MORE: What is the ‘heat dome’ phenomenon causing Spain’s scorching heatwave?

Unfortunately, Spain’s national weather agency forecasts that temperatures will rise again by this week after some brief respite brought on by stormy weather.

According to Spain’s Daily Death Monitoring report on heat (Monitorización de la Mortalidad Diaria, MoMo for short), 54 percent of yearly fatalities attributed to excessive temperatures happen during the month of August.

The data suggests that 90 percent of those who die from heat exposure in Spain are over the age of 74, but children, infants and those with chronic diseases are also vulnerable. 


Why do people die when exposed to extreme heat?

The human body functions best at 37 C, so when it overheats and becomes dehydrated, this causes the blood to thicken, forcing the heart to pump harder and putting extra pressure on other organs. 

If thermal stress and heat gain becomes too high, the body’s mechanisms such as sweating no longer work and there is no other way to dispose of this additional heat.

This then causes heat exhaustion - which includes symptoms such as dizziness, muscle cramps and nausea - or worse still heat stroke, where delirium and loss of consciousness can be brought on.

READ ALSO: Eleven tips for staying cool during a heatwave in Spain


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