New research from the University of Exeter and University College London (UCL) debunks the widely held view that warmer winters will cut the number of deaths normally seen at the coldest time of the year. To the contrary, winter deaths in the United Kingdom may even increase as a result of weather extremes.
The researchers analysed how the winter death rate has changed over the past 60 years and what factors influenced it. They found that from 1951 to 1971, the number of cold days was behind winter deaths, whereas from 1971 to 1991, both the number of cold days and flu activity alike were responsible for fluctuations in death rates. However, since 1991, flu activity alone has been the main cause of variations in winter mortality. The researchers believe that the reduced link between the number of cold days and deaths is due to improvements in housing, health care and income, among other factors.
As climate change progresses, the UK is likely to experience increasing weather extremes, including a greater number of less predictable periods of extreme cold. The research highlights that, despite a generally warmer winter, a more volatile climate could actually lead to increased numbers of winter deaths associated with climate change, rather than fewer.
The findings will have important implications for policymakers and politicians making plans to manage the impacts of climate change, explains co-author Professor Michael Depledge of the University of Exeter.