How heatwaves in Germany have led to thousands of deaths

Soaring summer temperatures led to thousands of heat-related deaths in Germany from 2018 to 2020, a study has revealed.

How heatwaves in Germany have led to thousands of deaths
The sun rises in Baden-Württemberg during a heatwave in the middle of June. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

For the first time since the start of the study period in 1992, an usually high number of heat-related deaths occurred on three years in a row, researchers from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the Federal Environmental Agency (Uba) and the German Weather Service (DWD) wrote on Friday in the medical newspaper Deutsches Ärzteblatt.

Between 2018 and 2020, almost 20,000 heat-related deaths were recorded – especially among elderly people – as the country experienced more ferocious and frequent summer heatwaves. 

The authors of the study said that, while heat was not often reported as a direct cause of death, sweltering temperatures can affect people’s health in a variety of ways. 


“High outdoor temperatures affect the body in many ways and can, for example, put a great strain on the cardiovascular system,” they wrote. “In particular, heat can aggravate existing conditions such as respiratory problems.” 

The effect on the population’s health was particularly strong four years ago when German experienced its second-hottest summer on record. 

“In particular, 2018, with an estimated number of about 8,700 heat-related deaths, is of a similar magnitude to the historical heatwave years of 1994 and 2003 (about 10,000 deaths each),” the researchers explained. 

In 2018, Germany experienced an unusually long heatwave as well as conspicuously high weekly average temperatures over summer. In 2019, the researchers estimate that 6,900 heat-related deaths occurred, which dropped to 3,700 in 2020. For 2021, no significantly increased heat-related mortality was found. 

Climate change

Average temperatures in Germany were 3C warmer than usual this June – reflecting a trend towards extreme summer heat in recent years.

And it’s not just summer that’s getting hotter: both January and February were unusually mild this year, with average temperatures 3.5C and 4.1C higher respectively. For the year as a whole, experts estimate that the weather will be 2.4C hotter on average.

Climate experts are concerned that these high temperatures are becoming the new normal in Germany, with severe heat arriving more frequently and lasting for longer spells. 

READ ALSO: Weather: Germany sees extreme heat and storms

dry earth heatwave Dresden

Dry, cracked earth on the bank of the Elbe River in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Robert Michael

However, since 1992, the influence of these high temperatures on mortality has decreased slightly overall, the study says. This could be due to the fact that people have started to adapt to the hotter summers.

“Individual behavioural changes through greater awareness, such as wearing airy clothing, drinking enough fluids or seeking shaded or air-conditioned rooms, are conceivable,” the authors wrote. 

Nevertheless, the years 2018 to 2020 show that “heat events continue to be a serious threat to the health of people in Germany”. The researchers say the handling of heat periods in Germany must be significantly improved and vulnerable population groups must be adequately protected.

Since heat is rarely recorded as a direct cause of death, the study authors used statistical methods for their analysis.

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How extreme winter weather in Germany could affect your travel plans

Southern Germany has been battling full-on snow storms and sub-zero conditions. It's led to travel chaos which will continue this week.

How extreme winter weather in Germany could affect your travel plans

Heavy snowfall hit southern Germany on Saturday, resulting in Munich airport closing and dozens of trains being cancelled.

But the disruption continued on Sunday – and there are expected to be problems in the first few days of this week. 

Rail traffic in southern parts of the country was brought to a standstill as trees blocked tracks, overhead lines froze over and trains got buried in snow, leaving them unable to travel. 

“Due to the onset of winter, there will probably be delays and train cancellations in the south of Germany until midweek,” said rail operator Deutsche Bahn in a service statement on Monday. 

“Access to Munich Hauptbahnhof (central station) is currently only very limited. There are therefore only a few long-distance trains running to and from Munich.”

READ ALSO: Heavy snow paralyses parts of southern Germany

DB advised that journeys to and from Munich should be postponed.

There were still no connections between the state capital and Innsbruck and Salzburg in Austria, as well as Zurich in Switzerland. These services were expected to resume on Tuesday. 

On the route between Stuttgart and Singen, some services had resumed, however, there could be short-term cancellations.

DB also said that there may be train cancellations and delays in other parts of Germany due to the freezing weather. 

Deutsche Bahn advised that passengers who want to postpone their trip planned from December 2nd to December 4th due to the weather can use their ticket at a later date. 

It is also possible to take a different route than the one booked if it is going to the same destination. Meanwhile, seat reservations can be cancelled free of charge.

A stranded regional train from the Swabian Alb Railway on Sunday.

A stranded regional train from the Swabian Alb Railway on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

Because running train services were expected to be packed on Monday, train bosses recommended that passengers plan their postponed trip from December 5th onwards. 

Refunds are also possible if passengers cannot travel at a later date. 

A free hotline (08000-996633) has been set up for customers who want more information about the current situation.

S-Bahn and regional services around Munich are also impacted, with tracks expected to gradually improve over the next few days.

What about other possible disruption?

People planning to fly will be glad to hear that the situation at Munich airport is slowly returning to normal – but bosses have warned that disruption is still expected. 

The second runway at Munich reopened at around 7:20 am on Monday. The airport was forced to close on Saturday due to the severe snowfall, throwing travel plans into disarray. 

On Sunday due to the snow conditions, flights could only take place via the northern runway.

A total of 840 flights were planned to take place on Monday, however around 230 had been cancelled.

A spokesperson from Munich airport said there were still “severe restrictions in air traffic”.

“The flight schedule has been greatly reduced due to the airlines’ cancellations,” the spokesperson said.

“We therefore recommend that all travellers flying today or tomorrow check the status of their flight with their airline or contact the airlines directly before arriving at the airport.

“It is not yet possible to predict how the situation will develop in the coming days.”

The Christmas and winter market at the airport was to remain closed on Monday and Tuesday. 

Other parts of Germany were also hit by snow and freezing conditions at the weekend, including Baden-Württemberg. 

The weather also impacted road travel in parts of northern Germany with one car in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania coming off a snow-covered road and hitting a tree. The driver and one passenger were seriously injured.

When it comes to the roads on Monday, there was no major disruption but drivers were urged to stay vigilant, and police have warned of slippery roads. 

Meanwhile, some youngsters got a snow day on Monday. In parts of Upper Bavaria and Augsburg, schools were closed due to the weather.