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Climate warming will not decrease winter mortality


It is widely assumed by policymakers and health professionals that the harmful health impacts of anthropogenic climate change1,2,3 will be partially offset by a decline in excess winter deaths (EWDs) in temperate countries, as winters warm4,5,6. Recent UK government reports state that winter warming will decrease EWDs7,8. Over the past few decades, however, the UK and other temperate countries have simultaneously experienced better housing, improved health care, higher incomes and greater awareness of the risks of cold. The link between winter temperatures and EWDs may therefore no longer be as strong as before. Here we report on the key drivers that underlie year-to-year variations in EWDs. We found that the association of year-to-year variation in EWDs with the number of cold days in winter ( <°C), evident until the mid 1970s, has disappeared, leaving only the incidence of influenza-like illnesses to explain any of the year-to-year variation in EWDs in the past decade. Although EWDs evidently do exist, winter cold severity no longer predicts the numbers affected. We conclude that no evidence exists that EWDs in England and Wales will fall if winters warm with climate change. These findings have important implications for climate change health adaptation policies.

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Figure 1: Relative excess winter mortality for England and Wales over the past 60 years presented alongside key determinants.
Figure 2: Detrended data showing the year-to-year variation in relative excess winter mortality compared with the number of cold days and the activity level of influenza-like illness.
Figure 3: Rolling ten-year correlation between relative excess winter mortality and the two main predictors of year-to-year variation: number of winter cold days and activity of influenza-like illness.


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We thank C. McGilligan for comments and help identifying data sources. The European Centre for Environment and Human Health is supported by the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The funder had no influence whatsoever on the research presented in this article.

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The idea for this work arose from a meeting between the three authors. P.L.S. searched the literature, collected the data, carried out the analysis and wrote the first draft. All authors contributed to the final version of the paper. P.L.S. had full access to all the data in the study and had final responsibility for the decision to publish this article.

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Correspondence to Philip L. Staddon.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Staddon, P., Montgomery, H. & Depledge, M. Climate warming will not decrease winter mortality. Nature Clim Change 4, 190–194 (2014).

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