‘Uncharted territory’: Europe faces more deadly droughts and extreme heat

A fierce drought melted glaciers during Europe's hottest recorded summer last year, a phenomenon that could repeat as the continent warms at nearly twice the global rate, the EU's climate observatory said on Thursday.

'Uncharted territory': Europe faces more deadly droughts and extreme heat
An aerial view taken on August 4, 2022 in Les Brenets shows the dry bed of Brenets Lake (Lac des Brenets), part of the Doubs River, a natural border between eastern France and western Switzerland.(Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Two-thirds of Europe’s rivers fell below average levels and five cubic kilometres (two cubic miles) of ice disappeared from Alpine glaciers, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said in its yearly update.

With human-caused emissions heating the planet, Europe is warming around twice as quickly as the world average — 2.2 degrees Celsius over the past five years compared to the pre-industrial era.

In 2022 it saw its second-hottest year and its hottest summer since comparable records began in the 1950s, said Copernicus, which monitors numerous climate indicators via satellites plus land- and sea-based instruments.

Some 20,000 people across Europe died as a result of the extreme heat in 2022, a previous report claimed.

The forecast for 2023 remains uncertain but “with higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the probability of more warm years continues to increase,” said Samantha Burgess, deputy director of C3S.

With soils in southern Europe still “incredibly dry”, impacts will be felt this year “unless we have significant spring rainfall,” she added.

“Unfortunately the impacts are probably already in place for growing season. So we’re likely to see reduced crop production this year because of the dry winter and spring period.”

Drought in Europe

Copernicus had earlier announced that the past eight years have been the hottest on record.

It found 2022 “another record-breaking year in terms of greenhouse gases concentration, temperature extremes, wildfire and precipitation, which have all had a notable impact on both ecosystem and community all over the continent,” said C3S director Carlo Buontempo.

An inland vessel navigates on the Rhine as the partially dried-up river bed is seen in the foreground in Duesseldorf, western Germany, on July 25, 2022, as Europe experienced a heatwave. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

“We are really moving into uncharted territory.”

The continent had less snow and rain than average in winter 2021-2022, followed by prolonged heatwaves in the summer which hit the agriculture, river transport and energy sectors.

River levels were the second-lowest on record with nearly two-thirds of Europe’s rivers below their average level.

The heatwaves drove wildfires, with carbon emissions from such summer blazes the highest since 2017 across the EU.

The lack of winter snow and the high summer temperatures resulted in a record loss of ice from glaciers in the Alps, equivalent to a loss of more than 5km3 of ice,” the report said.

Southern Europe experienced a record number of days with “very strong heat stress” on the human body.

Emissions reductions

Copernicus said satellite measurements of major greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached their highest level on record in 2022.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries have pledged to slash their use of fossil fuels with the aim of reaching “net zero” emissions of these gases to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C.

Global temperatures in 2022 were 1.15C above the pre-industrial average, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Copernicus meanwhile calculated that Europe in 2022 received its highest amount of surface solar radiation in 40 years — a boon for renewable electricity production.

The heat in non-summer months reduced demand overall for electricity as less was needed for heating, it said. In southern Europe demand rose however as people cranked up the air conditioning.

Climate think tank Ember calculated in a report this month that solar and wind energy surged to make a record 12 percent of the world’s electricity in 2022. It forecast emissions from fossil fuels would peak in 2023.

“We have many adaptation options available today by changing supply and demand,” said Daniela Schmidt, earth sciences professor at the University of Bristol, commenting on the Copernicus report.

“Some of these are investments into our infrastructure which will take lead time, but they also include teaching people and companies about land cover change, water savings and efficiency.”

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Storms lash drought-hit Spain

Spain's weather agency issued weather warnings for large parts of the country Tuesday as several days of torrential rains following a prolonged drought caused minor flooding.

Storms lash drought-hit Spain

The heavy rains have mainly affected the southern provinces of Alicante and Almería which have been hit by several thunderstorms since the weekend.

Torrential rains have also lashed Madrid, where several roads were cut on Monday night due to flooding.

Flooding also temporarily interrupted traffic along stretches of three of the Spanish capital’s 12 metro lines, local officials said.

State weather agency AEMET placed most of northern Spain on alert Tuesday due to the risk of thunderstorms, hail and strong winds.

Most of the eastern region of Valencia, which is home to important tourism resorts such as Benidorm, were also on alert, along with parts of central Spain.

Experts said the torrential rains – which tend to trickle off instead of seeping into the ground – were insufficient to end the deficit in Spain’s water reservoirs.

Spain’s reservoirs, which store rainwater for use in drier months, were at just 47.5 percent of their capacity during the final week of May, down slightly from 47.7 percent during the previous week, according to environment ministry figures.

That is well below the ten-year average of around 68 percent.

Spain has registered the driest start to a year since records began, with less than half the average rainfall during the first four months of 2023, according to AEMET.

The government earlier this month approved measures worth more than two billion euros to alleviate the impact of the prolonged drought, especially on the agricultural sector.

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Spain is the European Union’s biggest producer of fruit and vegetables, and the world’s biggest exporter of olives.