Heat Waves Killed Hundreds of Israelis in a Decade, Government Study Finds

The investigation was launched after a Haaretz report revealed that 363 Israelis died during heat waves between 2012 and 2020

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A view on the western Negev desert in summer.
A view on the western Negev desert in summer.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Hundreds of Israelis have died due to heat waves over the past decade, more than previously thought, according to a study led by the Environmental Protection Ministry and Tel Aviv University published on Tuesday.

The researchers estimated that 363 Israelis died during eight heat waves that occurred between 2012 and 2020. These were “excess deaths” – an extreme deviation from the average number of deaths in the three years prior.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg ordered the probe in July, after Haaretz reported that a particularly strong heat wave in May 2020 led to the deaths of some 150 Israelis. The study, the first to connect these hundreds of deaths to heat waves, found that "a sharp and significant increase in mortality occurs in the weeks there were heat waves," and that, on average, "each heat wave in Israel leads to the deaths of 45 people whose lives may have been saved if adequate preparations had been made.”

Zandberg tapped her ministry’s chief scientist, Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor, to lead the research team to probe this phenomenon. Over the past year, Dr. Dan Yamin and Dr. Erez Shmueli of Tel Aviv University joined the project. The researchers and the chief scientist said on Tuesday that they believed the real numbers are higher than their estimations, and that further research will examine data for specific regions in Israel and compare them to other places in the world.

A heat wave, as defined by the Israel Meteorological Service, is “a prolonged event in which the heat load is heavier than usual and lasts many hours a day. In the mountains and inland, heat waves are characterized by high temperatures and low humidity. In the lowlands and coastal plain, heat waves arise from a combination of high temperatures and high relative humidity that may reach 70 percent or more on the coastal plain for most of the day.” The study examined each such event over the past years.

The number of heat waves is increasing due to climate change. The Meteorological Service has warned that over the next three decades, most Israeli cities will see a jump in the number of days with a peak temperature of over 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

Israel is warming at twice the global average, and is considered among the countries especially vulnerable to global warming and climate change. The world has warmed up by 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1850, with Israel up 1.5 degrees since 1950.

Last month was one of Israel's three warmest Aprils over the past 70 years, another sign of the country's accelerated warming trend, the Israel Meteorological Service said this month. Last year was one of the hottest in Israel since the 1950s, and the past decade was the hottest ever.

The researchers explained that the study was conducted using two methods. In the first, they looked at the number of excess deaths according to the existing model, which portrays the daily mortality pattern in Israel using daily temperature, humidity and respiratory disease data. For the second method, the researchers compared weeks in which there were heat waves to the weeks immediately before and after, without taking the model's predictions into account.

Both methods showed that Israel suffered a sharp rise in mortality during heat waves. The study found that the chief victims of heat waves in Israel were people above the age of 70.

According to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rapid rises in temperature impair the body's ability to regulate its temperature, leading to heat stroke and dehydration as well as severe kidney damage and an exacerbation of chronic conditions like heart failure.

Studies in other countries have found that in addition to mortality, hospitalizations, lengths of hospitalizations and the cost of medical care also rise as a result of heat waves. The chief reasons for hospitalization are cardiovascular issues, cerebrovascular diseases, acute respiratory distress syndrome and kidney disease – in which patients are more sensitive to heat – as well as psychiatric illnesses and dehydration. Researchers have also found these issues most significantly impact the elderly, women and populations with low socioeconomic status.

In July 2018, then-chief scientist of the Environment Protection Ministry Dr. Sinaia Netanyahu, issued a recommendation to prepare for climate change and to develop a nationwide program. The recommendation, which she presented to the cabinet, cited the need to monitor mortality, illness and treatment of risk groups during heat waves.

This new study “Testifies to the excess mortality from heat waves in Israel, as there is elsewhere in the world,” said Ariel Karlinsky, a member of the World Health Organization coronavirus committee and of the nonprofit Midaat – For Informed Health.

Hagai Levine, chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians and a professor of epidemiology at The Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital said: “The climate crisis is already causing the death of Israelis, and the situation is only expected to get worse. We need close monitoring in order to identify hidden victims and work to reduce harm to health. The initial research that the Environment Ministry has undertaken is important and provides important evidence. We recommend the formation of a national research and monitoring institute for the impact of climate change and the environment on health. We call on the government to advance an orderly and budgeted plan for preparing for and coping with the damage of the climate crisis to health in Israel, and in particular to vulnerable and at-risk populations. “

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