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European Climate Already Changing, Will Continue

Map indicating an annual precipitation in northern and southern Europe
Annual precipitation in northern Europe will increase dramatically from the late 20th century to the late 21st century; in southern Europe, precipitation will decrease significantly over that time period, according to a new study of the current and future effects of climate change on Europe. European Environment Agency/ENSEMBLE FP6 project

The European Environment Agency releases a report noting a variety of climate changes in progress across the diverse continent.

January 8, 2013—Climate change is already altering life in European countries—bringing deadly heat waves and drought to some areas and severe coastal and river flooding to other areas—and these changes threaten to create socioeconomic challenges on the divergent continent, according to a new report released recently by the European Environment Agency (EEA), an agency of the European Union tasked with providing independent information on the environment to guide policy makers.

The report, Climate Change, Impacts and Vulnerabilities in Europe 2012, is the third such document generated by the EEA since 2004. The report examines current and predicted climate change as well as the effects of those changes on both the environment and socioeconomic systems, and identifies vulnerabilities. A parallel report to be published in early 2013 will discuss adaptation strategies and will review current adaptation efforts across Europe.

“Climate change is already occurring, and its effects can be seen everywhere in Europe,” said Hans-Martin Füssel, Ph.D., a project manager at the EEA, and the coordinator of the report. “We observe increases in temperature and changes in precipitation across Europe, but with important differences across seasons and European regions.

“As a result, existing climatic differences between European regions are further intensified,” Füssel said in written comments to Civil Engineering online. “Summer warming is particularly pronounced in southern Europe, whereas the Arctic regions show the fastest annual temperature increase. Precipitation tends to increase in Northern Europe, in particular in winter, and to decrease in southern Europe, in particular in summer.”

The report, which utilizes data from research programs, global databases, and various monitoring sources, finds that land temperatures in Europe for the decade between 2002 and 2011 are 1.3° C above levels seen in the preindustrial era, making it the warmest decade on record. The EEA projects that without strong global mitigation efforts, global temperatures by 2050 will likely have reached 2° C above the preindustrial era that the European Union had established as the target cap for the century that has been agreed upon under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under a business-as-usual emissions scenario, the actual increase by the end of the century could be more than double that goal.

This warming will be accompanied by a dramatic increase in “heat stress” days—defined as daytime temperatures exceeding 35° C (95°F) and night temperatures greater than 20° C (68°F). Heat stress days in southern Europe are projected to double by 2071-2100. Some areas along the Mediterranean Coast will experience an additional 25 heat stress days, with totals reaching 50 days per year.

Precipitation is projected to increase in northern Europe and decrease in southern Europe. As this trend occurs, the EEA also projects that large storms will contribute a greater percentage of total precipitation, meaning that weather will grow more extreme.

“What concerns me is our still limited ability to project changes in extreme weather events that can have major and long-lasting effects in a whole region,” Füssel said. “For example, within the first year that I moved to Copenhagen to work for the European Environment Agency, I experienced already two so-called one-in-a century flash floods, causing major damage in the city.

“Copenhagen authorities have given a lot of attention to climate change adaptation,” Füssel said. “However in many other regions, authorities and citizens do not sufficiently prepare for these events, although the social and economic cost of not doing so can be tremendous.”

Füssel, who has been involved in climate research for more than a decade, said that because climate change projections typically span 30 years or more, it is difficult to compare the findings of the 2012 report to the projections of the report in 2004. In general, however, the trends are consistent with earlier expectations.

“Many changes in the cryosphere, such as the fast decline in Arctic sea ice (with record lows in September 2007, 2011 and 2012) and the fast mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet (with record melting in summer 2012) are occurring much faster than projected earlier.” Füssel said. “In addition, recent heat waves in Europe, such as the one in western Europe in summer 2003 and the one in eastern Europe in summer 2010, established new temperature records far outside the historical record.”

The changes to climate in Europe are likely to bring daunting socioeconomic challenges to the region. In southern Europe, where increasing temperatures and declining rainfall are projected for the summer months, water use issues will be paramount. “Water demand in agriculture and other sectors (for example, households, tourism, and industry) is already high and there is competition for limited amounts of available water,” Füssel said. “Climate change tends to exacerbate such water stress problems and also increases the existing difference between dry and wet regions in Europe. These changes can threaten the viability of major economic sectors, such as agriculture and summer tourism, in southern European regions that are already hit hard by the current economic and fiscal crisis.”

The report notes that economic disparities across Europe mean that some regions will be less able to adapt to the demands of climate change. Regions unable to develop adaptation strategies to prepare for larger storms, higher temperatures, and water scarcity concerns will face higher damage costs when those extreme events occur, the report notes.


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    This is an interesting article. One of the important issues pointed out in the report is the issue of water availability in Southern Europe. The basis for the conclusion is that average precipitation will reduce. In passing reference is made to the fact that most so the rain will occur during large storm events. This increased variability in rainfall, resulting in increased variability in river flow will lead to a reduction in the reliability of fresh water supply from rivers.

    One of the principal shortcomings in contemporary climate research is that no consideration is given to the impact of inter-annual increases in hydrologic variability. This is a very important consideration, particularly for Southern Europe (and most likely also for the rest of the European mainland). The reason for this is that reliable water supply from rivers in Europe will require the use of much larger dams and reservoirs than what is currently available. The importance of using carry-over storage (I.e. within-river reservoirs that are large enough to store water that can supply in water shortages that will be experienced during multiple-year droughts) is not fully realized in most of Europe (excepting Spain, Portugal and Turkey). Climate change research should add consideration of the effects of increased inter-annual hydrologic variability on the reliability of fresh water supply to their agenda.

    Concise review of these effects are dealt with in an upcoming book on sustainable water supply and climate change: Annandale, G.W. 2013. Quenching the Thirst: Sustainable Water Supply and Climate Change.

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