How many died in 1976 heatwave? Excess deaths explained as comparisons made to 2022 extreme heat in UK
Experts have predicted thousands could die as the result of extreme temperatures in the UK - and thousands may have done in the often cited summer of 1976, too.
Chances are you’ve heard someone somewhere in the past week bringing up the heatwave of 1976.
The record-breaking summer experienced in the UK that year has been cited by those looking to downplay the current extreme conditions, as evidence that unusually warm weather is nothing new – and nothing to worry about.
In response to advice from the Met Office and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) about staying safe in the heatwave, some have managed to turn the situation into another culture war.
The former energy minister 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 the stoic, ‘get an ice cream and enjoy the sunshine’ attitude of yesteryear with 21st century ‘snowflakery’, the heatwave of 1976 may in fact have been deadly for thousands of people in the UK.
Analysis by NationalWorld has found almost over 3,500 unexpected deaths were recorded in England and Wales over one 16-day period – an average of 230 per day.
That would put excess deaths (extra deaths above what would have normally been expected) at 16% during the period.
One study, focused on Birmingham, estimated the heatwave could have been responsible for excess deaths in the region of 20% between 24 June and 8 July, rising to 30% between 3 and 5 July alone.
The maximum temperature recorded in 1976 was 35.9 degrees celsius.
But on Tuesday (19 July), temperatures in the UK topped 40 degrees for the first time.
Experts have warned that the country can expect thousands of excess deaths from the extreme temperatures experienced at the start of this week.
Sir David King, former government chief scientist, said the figure could be as high as 10,000 extra deaths, with the UKHSA warning “illness and death may occur among the fit and healthy, not just high risk groups”.
Are heatwaves deadly?
In 1976, excess deaths across June and July as a whole stood at around only 700, according to our analysis of the ONS data, with deaths dipping below the five-year average later in July and in August.
That is despite the 3,676 extra deaths recorded in the 16day heatwave window.
This could be due to the phenomenon of ‘displaced mortality’, according to the ONS, which is when vulnerable people who may have died that year died earlier than expected.
An ONS spokesperson said that while it had not looked in depth at 1976, a study of mortality during the 2019 heatwave – when a then record-breaking temperature of 38.7 degrees was recorded in Cambridge on 25 July – showed a correlation between deaths and extreme temperatures.
Sarah Caul, head of mortality analysis at the ONS, said: “Previous ONS analysis looking at the 2019 heatwave shows, at a daily level, extreme heat seems to have an impact on the number of deaths, but across the summer period as a whole the number of deaths is similar to previous years.
“This could be because the most vulnerable people, for example, those with pre-existing respiratory or cerebrovascular diseases, are more susceptible to death during heatwaves.”
How hot was 1976 – and how much worse is the heatwave now?
The summer of 1976 was a very unusually hot summer with temperatures hitting at least 32 degrees somewhere in the UK for 15 consecutive days.
Earlier this week, Will Norman, the walking and cycling commissioner for London, Tweeted two global temperature charts from NASA.
The images show how parts of Western Europe, including the UK, experienced unusually hot weather in June 1976, with temperatures far higher than the average between 1951 and 1980.
But in June 2022, unusually high temperatures are recorded across the world, with most of the European continent a sea of red, indicating temperatures far higher than expected levels.
What is causing the extreme weather?
The Met Office has said the extreme temperatures seen in the UK now are caused by climate change driven by greenhouse gas emissions.
In a video posted to Twitter, Professor Stephen Belcher, chief of science and technology for the Met Office, said the UK may see heat waves as intense as this one every three years if emissions continue at their current pace.
“Research conducted here at the Met Office has demonstrated that it is virtually impossible for the Uk to experience 40 degrees in an undisrupted climate,” he said.
“The only way that we can stabilise the climate is by achieving 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, achieving a balance for the climate.