Better forecasting of bitterly cold weather would save lives

·1-min read
<span>Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA</span>
Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

In February 2018, the “beast from the east” brought snow and temperatures as low as -14C to the UK. A new study shows that such cold events result in hundreds of excess deaths in the UK, peaking between three and five weeks after the polar winds slacken.

Extreme cold events like the beast from the east occur roughly once every two years and are triggered by a weakening of the winds circling the North Pole. When this happens, the jet stream shifts towards the equator, opening the door to cold easterly winds over northern Europe. Andrew Charlton-Perez, from the University of Reading, and colleagues studied the 15 extreme cold events that have occurred since 1991 and showed that they each resulted in an average of 620 excess deaths across the UK. Elderly people, families living in poorly insulated accommodation, or those struggling to pay their bills are the most vulnerable.

The study, published in Atmospheric Science Letters, shows that the timing of the health impact of an extreme cold event is predictable. Providing support prior to the cold weather arriving and forecasting when the health service is likely to be under the greatest strain will enable better preparation and help to save lives.