Image: Emery Way/Flickr
“Hey, at least winters won’t suck,” goes a popular refrain for people who want to say that climate change ain’t that bad. Some have even suggested that, as the world warms, we’ll see fewer deaths during the winter. Turns out, that’s probably not the case: A new study suggests winter mortality won’t change along with the climate.
We already know that climate change will lead (and has already led to) major hardships for the developing world, and will both directly and indirectly cause a huge increase in deaths as natural disasters, heat waves, droughts, and disease become more prevalent. But, look on the bright side—who likes winter anyway, your uncle or someone similar may have once said. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Health Organization have suggested that warmer winters may bring a health benefit.
“Although global warming may bring some localized benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in temperate climates and increased food production in certain areas, the overall health effects of a changing climate are likely to be overwhelmingly negative,” WHO notes, while IPCC says that “limited evidence indicates that, in at least some temperate countries, reduced winter deaths would outnumber increased summer deaths.”
However, the new study, published Sunday in Nature Climate Change, suggests that’s not likely to be the case. Phillip Staddon, a researcher at the University of Exeter, notes that declines in winter deaths are likely attributable to “better housing, improved health care, higher incomes, and greater awareness of the risks of cold.”
They found that, between 1951 and 1971 in the United Kingdom, the number of winter deaths was closely linked to the number of cold winter days, a trend that sort of continued until 1991, though flu-related deaths also seemed to play a huge role in winter mortality rates. Since 1991, however, the number of winter deaths appears to be fairly random, with flu activity being the only real driver in year-to-year winter mortality variation.
"We've shown that the number of cold days in a winter no longer explains its number of excess deaths. Instead, the main cause of year to year variation in winter mortality in recent decades has been flu,” Staddon said. "Both policy makers and health professionals have, for some time, assumed that a potential benefit from climate change will be a reduction in deaths seen over winter. We've shown that this is unlikely to be the case.”
There is no longer a strong correlation between excess winter deaths and temperature. Image: Nature
That’s good news in some sense—if we’re going to survive climate change (in the winter or the summer), we’re going to have to be able to adapt, and recent trends shows that we’ve been able to so far. But just because winter deaths have decreased doesn’t mean we can or should tie it to climate change. And it doesn’t mean that the trend is going to continue.
There’s also the uncertainty surrounding what climate change actually does to the flu virus. Some studies have suggested that, as the climate warms, we’ll see less seasonal flu. Others have suggested that we’ll see worse outbreaks, especially in bird flu. The truth will probably lie somewhere in between: Like with snowfall, temperatures, and natural disasters, we’ll see more variability and more extremes. And that uncertainty shouldn’t be comforting anyone.