UPDATE: Spain revises heatwave death toll up again to 1,047 deaths in nine days

The number of people who lost their lives due to heat-related causes during Spain's scorching heatwave has been revised again by Spanish authorities from 679 deaths to 1,047, with 40C heat returning to several regions of Spain this weekend.

heatwaves deaths spain
Of the 679 people who have died during this heatwave in Spain, it is believed that 430 are over 85 years old. (Photo by FRED DUFOUR / AFP)

The Carlos III Health Institute, part of Spain’s Ministry of Health, has revised its figures to 1,047 deaths in just nine days during Spain’s heatwave – which lasted officially from July 10th to 19th – with Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th the days with the most deaths at 184.

On Thursday morning the figure was just 679, and the update continues a worrying upward trend.

This latest revision to the figures comes just days after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez confirmed that “more than 500 people died” during the heatwave, meaning that the updated death toll is more than double his initial prediction.

READ ALSO: Heatwave in Spain: Why are so many people dying?

Worryingly, according to figures from Spain’s Daily Mortality Monitoring System, the number of deaths attributable to the soaring temperatures are consistently on the rise: on Sunday 10th there were only 15 deaths; 28 on Monday 11th; 41 on Tuesday 12th; 60 on Wednesday 13th; 93 on Thursday 14th; 123 on Friday 15th, and 150 on Saturday 16th.

On Sunday the 17th, the figure jumped to 169, while on Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th 184 deaths were reported.

Of the 1,047 dead during the heatwave, it is estimated that 672 were 85 or older, 241 were between 75 and 84, and another 88 between the ages of 65 and 74.

From Thursday, forecasts predict temperatures will rise again across much of Spain, with 12 out of Spain’s 17 regions on alert. 

Spanish provinces on yellow and orange alert for high temperatures on Thursday July 21st. Map: AEMET weather agency

This comes after a brief and slight drop in temperatures, which was preceded by the third longest heatwave on record in Spain. In essence, it will be almost as if the ten-day heatwave that just ‘ended’ continues to rage on.

The extreme heat will be felt the most in Andalusia, Extremadura, Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha , where there is an orange warning (significant risk), reports the Agency State Meteorology (AEMET).

Temperatures north of 35C are expected in Ebro valley, Mallorca and areas of the Canary Islands, and temperatures could top 40C in the valleys of the Guadalquivir, Guadiana and Tagus.

June heatwave

The current ola de calor (heatwave) gripping Spain is not the first the country has suffered this summer, however.

Spain also had a heatwave in early June, which made it the earliest in the year since 1981. The spell of high temperatures, which lasted for little over a week, saw the mercury exceed 40C in many parts of the country, according to the State Meteorological Agency (AEMET), in places like Jaén, where a staggering 44.5C was recorded on June 17th.

And like the current spell of scorching temperatures, such an unusually early heatwave also had fatal consequences in June. On both June 18th and 19th, 206 deaths were recorded, according to the Carlos III Health Institute. The institute estimates that the month of June saw 829 excess deaths that are attributable to the high temperatures. 

READ ALSO: Heatstroke death in Spain sees outdoor workers call for more protection

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How heatwaves have battered Spain’s mussel harvests

"There's nothing left here," sighs Javier Franch as he shakes the heavy rope of mussels he's just pulled to the surface in northeastern Spain. They are all dead.

How heatwaves have battered Spain's mussel harvests

With the country hit by a long and brutal heatwave this summer, the water temperature in the Ebro Delta, the main mussels production area of the Spanish Mediterranean, is touching 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

And any grower who hasn’t removed their molluscs in time will have lost everything.

But that’s not the worst of it: most of next year’s crop has also died in one of the most intense marine heatwaves in the Spanish Mediterranean.

By the end of July, experts said the western Mediterranean was experiencing an “exceptional” marine heatwave, with persistently hotter-than-normal temperatures posing a threat to the entire marine ecosystem.

“The high temperatures have cut short the season,” says Franch, 46, who has spent almost three decades working for the firm founded by his father, which has seen production fall by a quarter this year.

The relentless sun has heated up the mix of fresh and saltwater along Catalonia’s delicate coastal wetlands where the River Ebro flows into the Mediterranean.

On a scorching summer morning in Deltebre, one of the municipalities of the Delta, the mussel rafts — long wooden structures with ropes attached which can each grow up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of mussels — should be teeming with workers hurrying around during the busy season.

But there is hardly any movement.

“We lost the yield that was left, which wasn’t much, because we were working to get ahead so we wouldn’t go through this,” explains Carles Fernandez, who advises the Ebro Delta’s Federation of Mollusc Producers (Fepromodel).

“But the problem is that we’ve lost the young stock for next year and we’ll have quite a high cost overrun.”

Fishermen extract Pacific oysters bunches in a farm structure on the open sea off the coast near Deltebre, south of Tarragona, on August 10th, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Millions in losses

The heat has wiped out 150 tonnes of commercial mussels and 1,000 tonnes of young stock in the Delta, initial estimates suggest.

And producers are calculating their losses at over one million euros ($1,000,000) given they will now have to buy young molluscs from Italy or Greece for next year.

“When you have a week when temperatures are higher than 28C, there can be some mortality, but this summer it has lasted almost a month and a half,” with peak temperatures of almost 31C, says Fepromodel head Gerardo Bonet.

Normally, the Ebro Delta’s two bays produce around 3,500 tonnes of mussels, and 800 tonnes of oysters, making Catalonia Spain’s second-largest producer, although it remains far behind the output of Galicia, the northwestern region on the colder Atlantic coast.

For years now, the harvest in the Delta has been brought forward, cutting short a season that once ran from April to August.

‘Tropical’ Mediterranean

Hit by coastal erosion and a lack of sediment supply, the rich ecosystem of the Ebro Delta — a biosphere reserve and one of the most important wetlands of the western Mediterranean — is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

And this extreme summer, when Spain endured 42 days of heatwave — a record three times the average over the past decade, the AEMET national forecaster says — has also left its mark below the surface of the water.

“Some marine populations which are unable to cope with temperatures as high as these over a long period of time are going to suffer what we call mass mortality,” says marine biologist Emma Cebrian of the Spanish National Research Council (CISC).

Spanish Mediterranean mussel producer Javier Franch shows dead Mediterranean mussel seeds in a farm structure on the open sea off the coast near Deltebre, south of Tarragona. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

“Imagine a forest, it’s like 60 or 80 percent of the trees dying, with the resulting impact on its associated biodiversity,” she says.

The succession of heatwaves on land has generated another at sea which — pending analysis of all the data in November — may turn out to be “the worst” in this area of the Mediterranean since records began in the 1980s.

Although marine heatwaves are not a new phenomenon, they are becoming more extreme with increasingly dire consequences.

“If we compare it with a wildfire, one can have an impact, but if you keep having them, it will probably mean the affected populations are not able to recuperate,” Cebrian said.

Experts say the Mediterranean is becoming “tropicalised”, and mollusc grower Franch is struck by the mounting evidence as his boat glides between empty mussel rafts in a bay without a breath of wind.

He is mulling an increase in his production of oysters, which are more resistant to high temperatures, but which currently represent just 10 percent of his output.

But he hopes it will help ensure his future in a sector that employs 800 people directly or indirectly in the Ebro Delta.

“(The sector) is under threat because climate change is a reality and what we are seeing now will happen again,” he says worriedly.