Climate change-induced heat stress may claim 330 Israeli lives per summer by 2100

Researchers warn that heat waves in the Eastern Mediterranean likely to occur seven times more often and last three times longer by century’s end

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The sun over forests near Jerusalem on September 2, 2021. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)
The sun over forests near Jerusalem on September 2, 2021. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

Some 330 people could be dying from heat stress every summer by the century’s end unless meaningful action is taken to reduce global warming gas emissions, Israeli researchers say in a new study.

Described as a “conservative” estimate, this would represent an 11-fold increase on the current annual figure of 30 heat-related deaths, according to the research, published in the latest issue of Science of The Total Environment.

Those aged 65 and over would be hardest hit by the more intense heat and its more frequent occurrence, according to the research.

In Europe last year, heat waves caused more than 16,000 excess deaths after parts of the continent experienced at least five record-breaking heat waves, with summer temperatures reaching 47° Celsius (116.6° Fahrenheit), according to the Brussels-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

The Mediterranean region as a whole is a climate-warming hotspot, having warmed approximately 1.5°Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, which is 20 percent faster than the global average.

This is especially notable during the Israeli summer and is related to complex changes in air circulation systems.

Number of days per year in Tel Aviv when temperatures exceeded 30 degrees Celsius (85°F). (Courtesy, Gil David)

Existing research has found that the duration of heat waves in the region, which includes Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and southern Turkey, had already increased six-fold from 1960 to 2010.

The researchers — Assaf Hochman of the Institute of Earth Sciences at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and two academics from the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, where Hochman also works — predict that heat waves in the Eastern Mediterranean are likely to occur seven times more often and last three times longer by 2100.

Indeed, they say, a single heat wave could last all summer.

The paper cites research suggesting that the number of very hot days in the coastal Levant (where daytime temperatures peak at 35° Celsius/95° Fahrenheit or more) may increase by more than two months until the end of the 21st century, noting that such changes will occur in an area where populations are growing fast, socioeconomic levels are unstable, and urbanization can make things worse because infrastructure, such as buildings and roads, absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural environments.

It concludes that “true interdisciplinary regional collaborations are required to achieve adequate public health adaptation to extreme weather events in a changing climate.”

An Israeli man enjoys a mountain spring outside of Jerusalem, on May 27, 2015, Extremely high heat hit Israel with temperatures passing 100 degrees Fahrenheit in most of the country. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

In September 2021, a conference on climate change and public health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel heard how extreme heat can cause not only deaths but premature births and eclampsia, a severe pregnancy complication, as well as increase the chances of strokes and strong allergic reactions.

Furthermore, with global warming, disease-bearing parasites are spreading to areas where they have no natural predators. Floods caused by heavy rainfall can churn up pollutants and sweep them into the water system. These include animal urine, which can transmit the potentially fatal leptospirosis disease, fears of which have already prompted the temporary closure of streams in northern Israel.

Dr. Tamar Berman, an environmental toxicologist from Hebrew University, who advises the Israeli Health Ministry, spoke about increasing pressure on emergency departments, a rise in pathogenic disease, as well as physiological and mental illness, more pollution in the air (for example from sandstorms), and contamination of food (bacteria thrive in warm temperatures and farmers may be pushed to use more pesticides).

Dr. Tamar Berman addresses a Ben Gurion University conference on public health and climate change, September 12, 2021. (Screenshot)

Berman said data analysis showed that visits to emergency rooms in Israel had risen six-fold between 2010 and 2019, due to heatwaves.

More people with heart and blood diseases were being hospitalized during the summer, Berman went on.

With the increasing aridity of the land, an uptick in sandstorms is also a cause for concern, since they could lead to lung damage, she said.

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