‘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.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


MAP: The parts of Spain that are most and least affected by global warming

With more than 500 temperature records beaten this summer it's undeniably getting hotter across much of Spain. However, some cities and areas of the country are disproportionately affected by global warming, while others aren't.

MAP: The parts of Spain that are most and least affected by global warming

Global warming is getting harder and harder to dispute, there’s no denying that temperatures are rising, particularly after living through the last couple of record-breaking years we’ve seen in Spain.

In 2022, Spain experienced its hottest year on record so far, including the hottest spring and the hottest month of October.

This year, 2023 continues to be a record-breaking year with the hottest April on record and at least five summer heatwaves where the mercury got up to the low 40s in several parts of the country.

READ ALSO: Spain sees staggering 552 temperature records broken this summer

Add this to the fact that severe drought has been affecting much of the country for the past year and the situation is not looking good. 

According to the State Meteorological Agency (AEMET) data, the most significant temperature increase has occurred in the last 60 years. Since the pre-industrial period, the average temperature in Spain has increased by around 1.7C and since the 60s by 0.3C each decade.

READ ALSO: Is it worth living in Spain if the summers are so unbearably hot?

New data from the Sustainability Observatory Seventy has revealed that 70 percent of the Spanish population live in areas where the temperatures have risen more than 1.5C in the last 60 years.

The evolution of temperatures in Spain between 1961 and 2018. Source: Observatorio de Sostenibilidad

Where have temperatures risen the most?

One of the most important points to remember is that not everywhere in Spain is warming at the same rate.

One of the regions that has been the most affected is the Eastern Pyrenees. Of the nine municipalities that have already registered a temperature rise of more than 3C, six are in this area. These are Alp, Das, Fontanals de Cerdanya, Ríu de Cerdanya, Castellar de n’Hug and Llivia.

The province of Girona, in northern Catalonia, has registered the greatest amount of warming at 3.26C.

In total, more than 300,000 people, equivalent to 1 percent of the population and 3 percent of Spanish municipalities, have already experienced warming at this level.

Of the total number of municipalities, half of them have already seen a warming of more than 1.5C, which means that 70 percent of the Spanish population lives in these areas that have warmed beyond this number.

This leaves only 30 percent of inhabitants (equivalent to 49 percent of municipalities) in Spain living below that increase.

The map shows that the areas that have experienced the greatest increase in temperatures are located mainly in elevated areas of the interior plateaus and in the low coastal mountain areas, as well as on the Cantabrian coast and in Galicia.

Madrid, areas of Seville and Cádiz, parts of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands, particularly northern Tenerife, Lanzarote and El Hierro, are the parts of Spain that have seen their temperatures rise the most since 1961.  

A separate study from the Climate Shift Index revealed that Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Valencia and Zaragoza are among the ten European cities most affected by climate change. 

Which areas in Spain have been least affected by global warming? 

The places where the temperatures have risen the least and will be affected by global warming to a much lesser degree have been marked in light yellow on the map. This represents a temperature rise of between 0C and 1.49C. 

These places are mainly located in northern Spain, but inland from the coastal areas. These include much of north and western Castilla y León, La Rioja, the southern parts of the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias, as well as the eastern part of Galicia. 

The other big area where temperatures have risen the least over the past 60 years is a large part of Andalusia, with the exception of the Guadalquivir Basin around Córdoba and Seville. 

The southern tip of Castilla-La Mancha, the western half of Murcia and the southern part of Valencia have also been marked in yellow, indicating that the temperature hasn’t risen significantly within the last 60 years. 

What does this mean for the future?

If these regions keep warming at a similar or faster rate than they have been since the beginning of the 60s, there may be large parts of the country that will become too hot to live in in the future. 

The head of the ocean ecology laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre in the US, Carlos del Castillo, recently warned that Spain could break its current record of 47.6C and reach a scorching 50C or more.

He believes that if governments don’t drastically reduce emissions from fossil fuels, the country will suffer a greater number of heatwaves in the coming years.