Extreme heat seizes Europe, the continent that is warming the most

Besides being extremely dry, last summer was the hottest on record. The Copernicus Service forecasts for this spring and summer for the Mediterranean area do not bode well: rainfall deficits will persist

People walk on parched ground in Greenwich Park in London, Britain, 06 August 2022
Greenwich Park in London on August 6.NEIL HALL (efe)
Manuel Planelles

Unprecedented extreme hot temperatures coupled with extensive and widespread drought characterized the European climate in 2022. These are two of the manifestations of a climate crisis that is striking this continent particularly hard, with 2022 being the second warmest year on record. When focusing only on the summer, the situation becomes even more extreme, as it was the hottest one since reliable records began in the 20th century. Concurrently, the concentration of greenhouse gases - the main drivers of climate change- in the atmosphere has also hit its highest level since these data have been recorded.

“Temperatures in Europe are soaring at twice the global average, faster than on any other continent,” warns the 2022 State of Europe’s Climate Report, which is compiled by the Copernicus Climate Change Service under the European Commission. One of the causes of this phenomenon is that a significant part of the continent is located in the subarctic and arctic, which are the fastest warming regions on the planet. Additionally, the continent includes a large proportion of land, which warms up more than the water surface. This is compounded by changes in climate change feedbacks, like jet streams.

Part of the Guadiana river has dried up and gives way to dry land under the Puente de la Mesta medieval bridge in Villarta de los Montes, in the central-western Spanish region of Extremadura
The Cijara reservoir, in Villarta de los Montes (Badajoz), during the drought of August last year. THOMAS COEX (AFP)

On the basis of average temperatures over the last five years, global warming stands at around 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (1850-1990). In Europe, this temperature increase has already reached 2.2 degrees Celsius in comparison with the pre-industrial era, when humans began to burn fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases on a huge scale.

However, climate change not only represents an escalation in average temperatures, but also an increase in extreme conditions, such as a succession of heat waves like those experienced at an early stage in Spain in 2022. Another example is the severe drought that struck a third of Europe at its peak last year, according to the Copernicus report. Furthermore, European river flows were the second lowest ever recorded, representing the sixth consecutive year of below-average levels. “2022 was the driest year since records began and 63% of European rivers saw below-average flows,” explains this European agency.

Spain also emerged as one of the black spots regarding drought. The country is expected to continue to endure water shortages, according to Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service. This specialist believes it is “likely” that there will be water availability problems in the summer if the situation does not change, which is something that scientific models do not suggest. Predictions indicate the opposite - dry conditions are expected to persist in southern Europe in the spring and summer, Burgess adds. This will have consequences for reduced agricultural production, among other things, predicts the Copernicus expert.

“Our climate is changing”, summarizes Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service. The solution to prevent this crisis from escalating to the most catastrophic levels has already been outlined by scientists. Buontempo stresses that, on the one hand, it is essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, we must implement adaptation measures to anticipate the negative effects of rising temperatures and extreme meteorological conditions. Because this “climate crisis” carries “serious consequences” for ecosystems, societies and the economy, warns this specialist.

Thermal stress

Experts stress that last summer was not only the hottest ever on record in Europe - with temperatures 1.4 degrees above average - but that the previous summer (2021) had previously been recorded as the warmest. In other words, the records have been stacking up over the last decade and these are not incidental, but reflect the warming tendency that Europe is experiencing, like the rest of the world.

The southern part of the continent was particularly badly hit. “It saw a record number of days with severe heat stress. Generally, there is an upward trend across Europe in the number of summer days with strong or severe heat stress, and in southern Europe the same applies to extreme heat stress,” the Copernicus report states.

The study also contains a section detailing the impact of weather conditions on the production of renewable energies, which are increasingly seen as the main substitutes for fossil fuels in combating climate change. Solar energy was the most positively affected, with Europe receiving the highest amount of surface solar radiation in the last 40 years, in 2022. This resulted in above-average solar PV generation capacity in most parts of the continent, a trend that has been ongoing for the past four decades.

The immediate future: from La Niña to El Niño

Scientists expect to see the return of the El Niño phenomenon from this summer - this involves an increase in temperature in certain areas of the Pacific Ocean. This in turn sparks an increase in global temperatures and the aggravation of extreme conditions. On the opposite side of the spectrum lies La Niña, which entails a mellowing of temperatures over a large part of the planet, and this has been occurring in the last few years.

The dry riverbed of the Po, Italy's longest river, as it passes through Boretto on June 22, in the country's worst drought in 70 years
The dry riverbed of the Po, Italy's longest river, passing through Boretto on June 22, 2022, in the worst drought the country has experienced in 70 years.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE (Reuters)

The effects of El Niño take several months to manifest themselves on a global scale, but, according to Buontempo, they will ultimately push up global temperatures. The question is whether this will occur in 2023 or 2024. The last time period dominated by El Niño (between 2014 and 2017) saw the globe’s warmest year since reliable records first began in the 19th century - that was 2016.

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