After years of warnings about the threat of global warming, its potential impact struck home in 2003 with an unexpected death toll from bouts of extreme weather.

The most shocking was a heat wave in Europe that left nearly 15,000 dead in France. Most were elderly people felled by dehydration or heatstroke while family members and health workers were on August holiday. In the United States, a fierce February snowstorm dumped 20 to 30 icy inches from Kentucky to Connecticut, reportedly causing at least 10 deaths. May’s freak tornadoes killed more than 40 people in the Midwest. In October, forest fires in southern California fanned by hot, dry Santa Ana winds destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 20 people.

Last year’s extreme weather signals the beginning of a potentially devastating trend, according to a report released in July by the World Meteorological Organization. The nonpartisan group notes that the frequency and severity of extreme-weather events has been on the rise of late, and, citing recent scientific assessments, names global warming as the likely cause. Though it’s impossible to be certain whether climate change is responsible for any individual event, the relationship between increasing temperatures and severe weather should become clearer as the number of events–and the devastation they bring–increases.

The connection between global warming and human health is starting to get more attention. Scientists at the World Health Organization warned in October that in poor nations, malaria, drought-caused malnutrition, floods and other side effects of a warming planet already kill around 160,000 people a year, a figure that could double by 2020. Researchers at Cornell University are investigating how climate change is fueling the spread of the mosquito that carries the West Nile virus. “There’s more awareness of the linkages between climate extremes and human health,” says Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center in North Carolina.

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