MEXICO CITY — From hail the size of golf balls to deadly heat, concertgoers in 2023 were forced to deal with extreme weather events that put them in harm’s way during the world’s warmest year on record, with temperatures predicted to climb even higher in 2024.
Crowd safety experts and outdoor event organizers are exploring ways to protect performers and fans from the growing threat of extreme weather, after global warming neared an internationally agreed limit of 1.5° Celsius last year.
“There was not a single month during 2023 where we did not have multiple incidents like that,” said Milad Haghani, a senior lecturer specializing in public safety and disasters at Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW).
“It was absolutely a bad year for the music industry.”
A non-exhaustive list put together by Mr. Haghani shows at least 29 concerts and music festivals worldwide were impacted by a weather event in 2023 — with two resulting in spectator deaths.
They included Ana Clara Benevides, 23, who died of heat exhaustion in November at a Taylor Swift concert in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where temperatures reached a record of 59°C (138.2°F).
A statement from the Brazilian Ministry of Culture after Ms. Benevides’ death noted that the whole planet “is feeling the impacts of climate change.”
“Factors like this, increasingly, must be considered when exposing our population to its effects,” the ministry said.
Among other weather-hit events last year, 17 fans were hospitalized during an Ed Sheeran concert in Pittsburgh due to heat-related incidents, while an Elton John show in New Zealand was canceled because of torrential rain.
‘CAUSE FOR CONCERN’Extreme weather fueled by climate change is a growing problem for all public activities held outdoors, from political rallies to sports competitions.
Last August, 600 participants at a global gathering of scouts in South Korea fell ill amid a heatwave exceeding 38°C (100.4°F), prompting the mobilization of dozens of military doctors and nurses to help the victims.
Eight days into the same gathering, about 40,000 teenage scouts were evacuated ahead of a typhoon.
A spokesperson for the World Organization of the Scout Movement said the weather had always been a risk factor when organizing such events.
But now it is “the extreme and unpredictable nature of environmental effects driven by climate change that is cause for concern,” the spokesperson said by e-mail.
The body is investigating how to strengthen its health and safety measures for future events and better prepare for the potential impacts of climate change and extreme weather.
PREPARATION AND CONTINGENCY PLANSTestimonies shared on social media by attendees at the Taylor Swift concert in Brazil, where Ms. Benevides died, described how water bottles were confiscated at the entrance, while water was being sold inside at high prices — a common practice at commercial music events worldwide.
Serafim Abreu, chief executive of entertainment company T4F, which organized the Taylor Swift show, acknowledged in a video posted on social media that the company could have changed the performance start time and added more shaded areas.
“We know that with the climatic changes we are living through, these episodes will be more frequent. We also know that every sector must rethink its actions in the light of this new reality,” Mr. Abreu said.
Kevin Kloesel, an event safety meteorologist for the University of Oklahoma, urged organizers to make weather a priority and give it the same weight as other risk factors like terrorist attacks and active shooter situations.
“It turns out that weather is going to be the more likely threat on a daily basis than any of those other risks,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Organizers should also hire professional meteorologists who can monitor threats and help take difficult decisions — such as calling off a show to prevent injuries and deaths, he said.
“We need a meteorologist who can advise the event staff on cooling stations, the amount of water to have available, (and) where are the most likely places in your venue that will get excessively hot,” Mr. Kloesel added.
Experts on crowd safety said rigorous contingency plans are needed in case an event has to be postponed, canceled, interrupted, or evacuated due to the weather.
For Mr. Kloesel, that includes adapting venues so that they have adequate shaded areas, cooling stations and places where audiences can shelter in case of an emergency.
In August, a Beyoncé concert in Washington D.C. was postponed for two hours as attendees took refuge from a lightning storm in an overcrowded concourse area.
“They did a phenomenal job of sheltering for lightning… but they crammed people so close together in spaces where there was no air movement that people started falling down due to heat illness,” Mr. Kloesel said.
Lack of safe shelter from extreme weather affected multiple concerts last year, including a Louis Tomlinson show in June in Colorado where a hailstorm injured 80 to 90 people and forced the gig to be called off, according to the local fire service.
EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO INDUSTRYParticipants in outdoor activities can also protect themselves from injury and death by being aware of potential weather risks, said Mr. Haghani of UNSW.
Simple things like checking the forecast can help people decide if they should take sunscreen and water, what to wear — and even whether it is worth attending an event.
“Risk assessment… is primarily the responsibility of venue operators, but people themselves are stakeholders and actually have a bigger stake, which is their life,” said Mr. Haghani, adding that they should leave if danger arises.
Venues should maintain transparent and timely communication with audiences, such as sending messages including weather forecasts and keeping them informed during the event, he said.
Lynn Thomas, medical director for St. John Ambulance, a charity that provides first aid at public events in Britain, said festival-goers need to be made aware that spending long periods in the sun can lead to heat exhaustion, especially in countries where people are not used to hot, humid weather.
Artists too can help prevent tragedy, said Mr. Haghani.
“They can afford to hire analysts to give them insights about crowd behavior and also educate them on how to monitor crowd behavior, how to identify threats, and how to intervene,” he said.
Other outdoor events, like sports competitions, are changing seasons or developing warning systems for extreme heat.
The New York Road Runners, for example, has implemented a color-coded alarm system for course conditions on the day, allowing competitors to cancel if it is deemed too dangerous.
According to Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Sally Capp, the Australian city is using reflective paint to lower temperatures in facilities like tennis courts.
It also has a heat warning system including public announcements on the street, as well as via social media and text messaging.
But even with strong contingency plans and mitigation measures, cancellation of outdoor events may become more frequent due to climate change, researchers warned.
“The viability of the event industry relies on their ability to be able to make plans and stick to them,” Mr. Haghani said. “If the weather is constantly going to intervene, it is going to threaten the very existence of the event industry.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation