BERLIN (dpa) – If your apartment doesn’t cool off at night, if your bare skin actually burns when you touch concrete and if you’re really tired from doing nothing, you know: Midsummer is here. It is especially noticeable in big cities such as Berlin.
Not only is heat extremely stressful – it can also make you sick or even fatal. Therefore, a new business alliance has developed heat protection schemes for the Berlin healthcare system to protect people from the health consequences of extreme heat. Plans should be submitted today. Similar concepts already exist in Cologne and Mannheim.
Urban heat island effect
But why are city dwellers at increased risk of suffering from the health effects of heat? According to Jürgen Krupp, head of the urban transformation research group at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Potsdam, this is partly due to the so-called urban heat island effect. Concrete stores heat better than natural materials.
Since heat always flows from a warmer system to a cooler system, it is emitted from overheated buildings into the surrounding air once the evening temperatures drop. Then indoors, but also in large cities, the temperature is generally higher than in the countryside, even at night. During heat waves, the body’s chances of recovery are reduced.
In principle, this heat island effect has already existed in the past. As the authors of a French study reported in the “International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,” more frequent and intense heat waves increase the risks to city dwellers due to the impact. This is a direct consequence of climate change.
On its website, the Federal Environment Agency cites models of calculations that predict for Germany that “in the future, an increase in heat-related deaths can be expected by 1 to 6 percent for each degree Celsius increase in temperature, which corresponds to more than 5,000 additional deaths each year due to heat by the middle of this century.”
Older people are particularly affected
According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), there is no nationwide monitoring system that records the number of heat-related deaths across Germany. According to the RKI, Berlin and Hesse estimated deaths from heat in 2018: according to this, about 490 people died in the capital due to the heat, about 740 people in the state of Hesse.
This affects the elderly in particular, says Dr. Natalie Niedens, who works in heat protection at the German Alliance for Climate Change and Health (Kluge) in Berlin. This is also shown by RKI estimates of numbers from Hesse and Berlin from 2018: while a total of about 12 out of 100,000 people died there from heat, about 60 out of 100,000 in the 75 to 84 age group were in people over their age. About 84 years old up to about 300 out of 100,000.
The reason is obvious: It has to do with the natural aging process, says Niedens. Older people have less thirst, and their circulatory system is no longer functional. There is also the social aspect. Many older adults live alone and have no one to help them during a heat wave, says Cluj researcher Jelka Wickham. Many homeless people in Berlin, pregnant women, infants, young children and those with pre-existing illnesses are also particularly affected.
The range of health effects of heat is wide. The doctor explains that the disease ranges from dizziness and fatigue to swollen feet, and even death in extreme cases. “During periods of extreme heat, for example, the risk of heart attack increases, and heart attack can also be associated with permanent disabilities,” says Niedens.
Expansion of green spaces and change of city infrastructure
So the question now arises: What can particularly affected cities do? “One aspect is certainly planting the cities,” says Professor Krupp from PIK. This is because plants – especially trees – evaporate water and thus cool their immediate surroundings. The German Federation for the Conservation of Nature (NABU), for example, repeatedly refers to the positive effects of green roofs or facades.
Krupp mentions wooden construction as another measure. Wood is insulating and does not emit heat absorbed in the interior to the same extent. This can be used for the construction of office buildings over 80 to 100 meters in height.
Wickham also supports expanding green spaces and changing the city’s infrastructure. However, she notes that these are long-term measures and will take a long time to implement. That’s why short-term solutions are needed. This includes, above all, informing the population and engaging the health care system, such as medical practices and care facilities, says Wickham. But it is also important to use drinking water dispensers or locate cool places in the city.
“All of these actions are just making up for what happened before,” says Wickham. “We caused climate change and that means we must see that we are now taking action to correct this error that did not vigorously solve the original problem.”
However, the health effects of heat are just one aspect of the many consequences of climate change. Scientists repeatedly emphasize that extreme heat waves in different regions of the world can lead to dehydration and, consequently, to malnutrition. Consequences can include increased migration, for example when areas are no longer habitable.
© dpa-infocom, dpa: 220620-99-728630 / 4