Europeans are facing more frequent extreme weather as the planet warms. Floods and big landslides have quadrupled and extreme heat waves and crop-damaging droughts have doubled since 1980, with a sharp spike in the last five years, according to the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council’s latest extreme weather update.
The increase in the frequency of extreme weather events should spur European countries to boost adaptation and resiliency efforts, said EASAC Environment Program Director Michael Norton.
“Policy makers and lay people think climate change is something gradual and linear, but we need to keep explaining that the gradual change is increasing the chance for dangerous extremes, and that’s what we have to prepare for,” Norton said.
“The increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events makes climate-proofing all the more urgent. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the political time scale of taking action, and the time scale on which climate change happens,” he said. “And by the time a lot of these more serious problems are widely recognized, the changes will be irreversible.”
Earth’s fever is nearing the climate change benchmark of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, and new research shows how global warming is affecting key climate drivers like ocean currents and temperature-controlling winds.
The academies’ report notes that changes in the ocean include a weakening of the primary heat transporting current in the Atlantic. That current, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, carries warm water north from the tropics and cooler water south from around Greenland. Studies vary on the magnitude of the weakening and whether the current could shut down entirely, something scientists say would have catastrophic consequences.
The Atlantic is also churning up more frequent and powerful atmospheric rivers that cause flooding in the United Kingdom. And scientists say rapid Arctic warming has shifted circumpolar wind patterns, including the jet stream, allowing cold, polar air to push southward. The UK and Ireland saw record snow and cold in mid-March, and a similar pattern of more frequent winter cold snaps in the Northeastern U.S. has also been linked with unusual warmth in the Arctic.
Are Cities and Countries Prepared?
“The signal for extremes is getting so much larger,” said Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute who recently analyzed global trends in extremes for the World Weather Attribution program. One of the biggest concerns is the spiking number of extreme heat waves, which are creeping toward a deadly heat-humidity threshold, he said.
This is an area where policy makers should act, because “the number of deaths could be reduced immensely by very simple measures. The impact of heat is so dependent on human behavior and human adaptation,” he said. The extreme heat wave of 2003 that killed 70,000 people—mostly in France—was a wakeup call for parts of Europe—but not everywhere, he said.
Protective measure have helped lower the death toll from subsequent heat waves in France, but in Germany, heat adaptation is not a local government priority yet, despite the near-certainty of extreme warmth in cities, said Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, with Climate Analytics. As a first step at the federal level, the German Weather Service in 2017 introduced new heat warnings that pinpoint extremes down to the city level, with safety messages designed specifically to reach vulnerable people with clear safety messages.
Climate risks are also growing quickly in other densely populated parts of northern Europe where extreme heat hasn’t historically been a big threat. In Belgium, cities will experience an additional 25 days with temperatures 10 degrees Celsius above the heat alarm level by 2050 if emissions keep rising the next few decades, according to Hendrik Wouters of the University of Leuven in Belgium.
At that level, power infrastructure can fail and hospital admissions spike. Policy makers and planners need data so they can plan adaptive measures. One team of scientists in the UK showed how ambulance responses slow down when temperatures spike because of the increased demand. Such delays can be a matter of life and death for elderly people or infants during a heat wave.
Long-term, indirect health impacts also need to be considered, said Hanns Moshammer, a public health researcher in Vienna. New diseases linked with global warming are already spreading into Europe, he said.
A March 19 report from the World Bank also showed that climate change impacts could unleash large waves of migration. Up to 140 million people could be on the move internally in South Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa by 2050 in a demographic shift that would ripple around the world.
European Leaders Listen to the Academies
EASAC’s extreme weather report represents the combined independent voices of all the European countries and important institutional knowledge that transcends political shifts, said Øystein Hov, secretary general of The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
“The European Commission tends to listen to what’s coming from the academies,” Hov said, noting that EASAC’s original 2013 extreme weather report was used as part of the basis for the European Union’s support for ambitious goals of the Paris climate agreement.
The conclusions of the report, he said, show that “the risks are such that you really should do something about it.”