Heat islands and Covid-related problems: Czech experts on extreme heatwaves

Scientists are warning that 2023 could be the hottest year in the world on record, and heat waves are predicted to become all the more common each year. This summer, heatwaves have swept across Europe, as the El Nino climate pattern leaves citizens in sweltering heat, resulting in increased mortality and heat-related health issues.

An image of Prague from June 18 2022 taken by the ECOSTRESS instrument,  which is located on the International Space Station | Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If there’s one thing that has characterized the past few weeks here in Czechia, it’s the heat. In fact, temperatures of over 38 degrees Celsius have been experienced so far this summer. But this country is not alone in these scorching temperatures, as heat waves have been taking place on three different continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Professor Jan Frouz of the Environment Center at Charles University, says this extreme heat is caused by jet stream patterns that have led to the El Nino, a climate pattern we are currently experiencing this year.

“These jet streams kind of wave like a snake, and if they wave north it can suck arctic air in our climate, and if it waves south, it can suck the tropical climate. And this is what causes these extra cold or extra hot days. This has been happening for a very long time, but what is happening now is that these waves are becoming more pronounced and they get stuck, which is why we have these prolonged periods of hot days, particularly in summer.”

“There is an El Nino and El Nina event, and they are also related to subtropical circulation. So it is similar mechanisms I described in the temperate zone happening in the subtropical zones. The El Nino brings extremely dry weather, and El Nina brings extremely warm and rainy weather.”

Photo: geralt,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

During these times of extreme heat, everyone would likely want to be next to a body of water where they can cool down. But individuals living in cities are often impacted the most by these heat waves, as Professor Frouz explains.

“Each of these heat waves are accompanied by increased mortality, particularly in cities. The reason for this is that we have these things called ‘heat islands’ in the cities. The heat island happens because we turn most of the city into an impermeable area, we build it out of concrete, pavement and asphalt, and only a small portion of the city is green.

“This is an important difference, because if there is soil and vegetation, when it rains it accumulates the water, and then on warm days the water gets evaporated, and this has a cooling effect. In a tropical forest, you would have 27 degrees all day and all night, this is because the energy of the day is accumulated and consumed on evaporation, and the same energy is released through condensation of water during the night.

“The contrary would happen in the Sahara, you would have a huge fluctuation in temperature because there is no water which can evaporate and condensate to form a buffer.

“In cities, we make something like our own personal Sahara.”

Increased mortality rate from heatwaves has become more common in recent years. Just last year, the New York Times reported that 61,000 people died in Europe alone from the heat, a number that Aleš Urban, a post-doc student who specializes in the impacts of climate change on human health at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, says isn’t going to change any time soon.

Aleš Urban | Photo: Amelia Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

Urban cites the summer of 2003, when a heatwave that killed nearly 70,000 people in Europe. That was seen as a rare event at the time but today this is only expected to become more common.

“This trend is going to continue, and we can expect similar summers more often. In 2003, it was a once per 1,000 year probability, and now we can expect this once every second or third year.

“We get temperature records every year in France, Italy, and the UK, so it’s difficult to say if we can expect the same numbers this year because it always depends on many variables, not only the climate.

“It’s also about the population and demographic structure, and there are also displacement effects. If there is one year with high mortality numbers, the next year is usually weaker because the vulnerable have died out.”

When it comes to those who are affected most by the heat, many groups are impacted, Urban says.

“Regarding health it’s the same as everywhere, the elderly over 65. The older you are, the more vulnerable. Women are also more vulnerable than men due to a combination of physiological things, and also demographic things.

“Widowed people are more at risk than married people, so it’s a combination of the physiology of women’s thermal integration, and there are also more women in these older age groups.

“Then, there are people with chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease and kidney diseases who are more at risk.

“Also people with mental health challenge are also at risk, there is evidence of higher rates of suicides due to heat.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has also had an impact on those affected by heat related illnesses, Urban says.

“There is a question of how much these numbers were affected by the Covid pandemic because it seems that people might be more vulnerable to the extreme heat from post Covid syndromes, or due to Covid.

“Last year in Western Europe there were still some outbreaks of Covid. In general, people with chronic respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases are most vulnerable to heat waves and heat stress, so there might be a direct or indirect contribution from the Covid pandemic to last year’s numbers.”

A topic of concern for governments across the world has been the impact climate change will have on agriculture and the harvesting of crops, as Jan Frouz explains.

“The other consequences could be that yield will be affected. Particularly if draught comes during a sensitive period of yield production. What is scarier is that the yield can be affected in several places on earth at the same time.

“Today, the probability that all corn yield in major production areas being affected is negligible. But once global warming progresses and if the global temperature increases by four degrees, it is almost certain this would happen.”

When it comes to solutions to address the climate issue, Frouz argues that implementing a carbon tax could be a sufficient way to create environmental policy that is both effective and does not harm economic growth.

“The most sensible solution would be taxing carbon. We have permits on Co2 emissions in the energy sector in Europe.

“If we have these permits for all industries, they will become part of the price of products, so the products which are in high demand would become more expensive, and other solutions that are less demanding would become cheaper, and this will drift the market towards more environmentally sensible solutions.”

But while this solution could work, it would require other countries within and outside the EU to band together and take the same measures.

Books in Urban's office | Photo: Amelia Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

“This will actually solve the problem when we talk about reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Czech Republic is quite an industrial country, and it would really threaten our economy if we decided we wanted to be carbon neutral tomorrow.

“But even if we did do that and make this large sacrifice, it would make less than 1% of a difference in world emissions. So this is the problem with these regulations.

“But if the European Union, Canada, and the United States decide that they will tax carbon, ultimately prices will increase, but then we also tax imports from countries who do not tax carbon, and if we do so, there will be an incentive for these countries to become a part of the carbon tax market, because they need this economic connectivity.”

In addition to the carbon tax, Frouz explains how solutions need to be developed that simultaneously mitigate the amount of environmental impact societies have, and adapt our current behavior to be more environmentally conscious.

“During Covid, we actually stopped increasing our Co2 production. It was just a little bit, and we have already made up for this, but it empirically shows that it is possible.

“So there are two things we need to do; in terms of mitigation, we need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere.

“And in terms of adaptation, we need to do things that hold more water into the ecosystem that will ensure more stability.

“The important thing is that we need to mitigate and adapt together because there are many landscape changes we can make to ensure both, so we need to focus on these strategies.”

But so far Frouz is disappointed with the solutions put forth by government to address climate issues.

“I’m really sad to see governments are speaking about mitigation and adaptation separately, this probably the worst thing that can happen right now.

“We need to find solutions that bring mitigation, adaptation, and maybe even the support of diversity at the same time. When we only focus on one thing, there is a risk we do more harm than benefits.”

Agriculture fields at Czech University of Life Sciences | Photo: Amelia Mola-Schmidt,  Radio Prague International

But while skeptical of governments approach to solutions, Frouz explains how educating young people about meaningful and impactful solutions is an important step to bridge these understandings.

“General education, this is information that people on the high school level should understand.

“Then, this is the basis for searching for smart solutions that combine several advantages. These are very variable, it’s not one big solution, and it’s a chain of complementary, small solutions that can make a change.”

While the heat rages on, and cities are impacted, it may seem like a far reach to solving the climate crisis. But as Frouz explains, the most valuable thing citizens can do to make changes is exercising their right to vote.

“If I should name the most important thing, it would be to vote.

“Go to elections to vote, and read the party profiles and figure out who wants to solve these climate issues.

“Once there is a change in preferences, than we can change the system.”

Photo: Pedro_Teixeira,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License