The impact of the summer 2003 heat wave in Iberia: how should we measure it?

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We present a new approach to improve the reliability of quantifying the impact of a heat wave on mortality rates. We show, for the recent European summer 2003 heat wave, that the use of absolute maximum temperature values, or number of days above a given threshold, can be misleading. Here, we have assessed the impact of the heat wave on Iberian mortality by applying a four step procedure: (1) calculating, for each observatory, the local maximum temperature (T_(max)) distributions, (2) calculating the corresponding 95th percentile values (T_(threshold)), (3) locally defining extremely hot days (EHD) as those days on which the local threshold of the 95th percentile of the series is exceeded, and (4) calculating the total degrees-days (DD) of exceedance, by calculating the difference T_(max)− T_(threshold) and summing these values for all days above T_(threshold). We show that the relationship between summer mortality rates and the DD index is non-linear and can be described by a logarithmic function, with a correlation coefficient of 0.78, which explains 60.6% of the mortality variance (F value of 24.64, significant at P<0.0001). Using maximum temperatures, no significant relationship is found with mortality, whereas the EHD frequency shows a significant association with mortality, albeit weaker than that obtained with DD.
© ISB 2005. The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of this study by the ISCIII (Red de Centros C03/09). The Portuguese Instituto de Meteorologia provided Meteorological data for Portugal. This study was supported by the Ministerio de Sanidad y Consumo. Proyecto: “Caracterización de la Intensidad de los extremos térmicos en España”. Two anonymous reviewers provided useful comments that improved the original manuscript.