How many died in 1976 heatwave? Excess deaths explained

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Experts have predicted that extreme temperatures in Britain could kill thousands – and thousands could have died in the much-cited summer of 1976.

You’ve probably heard someone mention the 1976 heat wave somewhere in the past week.

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The record-breaking summer that Britain experienced that year was cited by those wanting to downplay the current extreme conditions as proof that unseasonably warm weather is nothing new – and nothing to worry about.

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Responding to advice from the Met Office and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to stay safe during the heatwave, some have managed to turn the situation into another culture war.

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Former Energy Secretary John Hayes told the BBC that “when the weather gets hot, the snowflakes melt”, while GB News mouthpiece Neil Oliver described the messages as “insidious and borderline sinister”.

But despite efforts to contrast yesterday’s stoic ‘buy ice cream and enjoy the sun’ attitude with the ‘snowflake’ of the 21st century, the 1976 heatwave may indeed have been fatal to thousands of people in Britain.

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June 25, 1976: Wimbledon spectators wear newspaper hats and books to protect themselves from the sun (Getty Images)

Analysis by Mazic News has revealed that in 16 days there have been nearly over 3,500 unexpected deaths in England and Wales – an average of 230 a day.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 26,364 deaths were recorded between June 23 and July 8 this year — 3,676 more than the previous five-year average for the same data.

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That would put the number of excess deaths (additional deaths above what would normally have been expected) during the period at 16%.

A study that focused on Birmingham estimated that the heatwave could have accounted for more deaths in the area from 20% between June 24 and July 8, and to 30% between July 3 and 5 alone has increased.

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The maximum temperature recorded in 1976 was 35.9 degrees Celsius.

But on Tuesday (July 19) temperatures in the UK topped 40 degrees for the first time.

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Experts have warned the country could expect thousands of deaths from extreme temperatures earlier this week.

Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist, has said the figure could be as high as 10,000 additional deaths, with the UKHSA warning “disease and death can occur among the fit and healthy, not just high-risk groups”.

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Are Heat Waves Deadly?

In 1976, the total number of deaths in June and July was only about 700 according to our analysis of ONS data, with deaths later falling below the five-year average in July and August.

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And that’s despite the 3,676 additional deaths recorded in the 16-day heatwave window.

This could be due to the phenomenon of “displaced mortality”, according to the ONS, where vulnerable people who may have died this year died earlier than expected.

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An ONS spokesman said a study of mortality during the 2019 heatwave – when a then-record-breaking 38.7 degrees was measured in Cambridge on July 25 – showed a correlation between deaths and extreme temperatures, although it didn’t look closely had dealt with 1976 .

Sarah Caul, Head of Mortality Analysis at the ONS, said: “Previous ONS analysis looking at the 2019 heatwave shows that extreme heat appears to have an impact on the number of deaths at a daily level, but over the summer as a whole the number of Deaths is similar to previous years.

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“This could be because those most at risk, such as those with pre-existing respiratory or cerebrovascular conditions, are more vulnerable to death during heat waves.”

How hot was 1976 – and how much worse is the heat wave now?

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The summer of 1976 was a very unusually hot summer, with temperatures reaching at least 32 degrees anywhere in the UK for 15 consecutive days.

Earlier this week, Will Norman, the London Walking and Cycling Commissioner, tweeted two global temperature charts from NASA.

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The images show how parts of western Europe, including Britain, experienced unusually hot weather in June 1976, with temperatures well above the 1951-1980 average.

But in June 2022, unusually high temperatures will be recorded around the world, with most of the European continent being a red sea, indicating temperatures well above expectations.

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What is causing the extreme weather?

The Met Office has said that the extreme temperatures now being seen across the UK are being caused by climate change brought about by greenhouse gas emissions.

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In a video posted to Twitter, Professor Stephen Belcher, the Met Office’s chief science and technology officer, said the UK could experience heatwaves of this intensity every three years if emissions continue at their current pace.

“Research carried out here at the Met Office has shown that it is virtually impossible for the UK to experience 40 degrees in an undisturbed climate,” he said.

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“The only way we can stabilize the climate is to go to net zero.”

Net zero refers to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that we emit no more than we remove from the atmosphere to achieve climate balance.

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