‘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


‘Laughing stock of Europe’: What’s the new crisis to hit Austria’s coalition government?

Austria's environment minister went against the government's will and voted in favour of controversial EU legislation. Chancellor Nehammer now accuses the minister of 'abuse of office'.

'Laughing stock of Europe': What's the new crisis to hit Austria's coalition government?

It’s the latest crisis between centre-right ÖVP and its junior Green coalition partners. This one will make its way up to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), according to statements given by Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) on Monday (17).

This is due to the fact that Austria’s Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler broke with coalition partners to help pass a controversial EU-level law. “I know I will face opposition in Austria on this, but I am convinced that this is the time to adopt this law,” Gewessler told reporters.

The Federal Chancellery promptly responded to Gewessler’s unilateral action: “Austria will bring an action for annulment before the ECJ,” it said. Her vote was “not in line with the domestic will and therefore could not be cast in accordance with the constitution”, the Chancellor’s office said.

READ ALSO: Europe warned it must do more to deal with climate crisis

Gewessler will be charged with suspected abuse of office, ÖVP Secretary General Christian Stocker announced in a press release.

“There is a suspicion that Leonore Gewessler is acting unlawfully and knowingly against the clear guidelines of the Constitutional Service and against the constitution with her approval of the ordinance – this constitutes abuse of office,” Stocker said.

What was voted?

At the core of the discussion is a controversial EU law known as the “EU nature restoration law”. The legislation mandates the restoration of at least 20 percent of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 to restore all ecosystems in need by 2050. This landmark bill aims to address the decline of Europe’s natural habitats, a significant portion of which are currently assessed as being in poor condition.

The legislation includes specific targets for various ecosystems, including peatlands, forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and coral beds. Member states are required to improve at least 30 percent of these habitats by 2030, with this target increasing to 60 percent by 2040 and 90 percent by 2050.

The conservative ÖVP party has been against the regulations, consistently reasserting Austria’s abstention vote for two years now since the EU Commission presented the package that included the “nature restoration law.” 

But now, Gewessler’s rogue vote was crucial for the legislation to pass. Austria’s vote, which was a mystery until the very end, was decisive.

Although a clear majority of states voted in favour anyway, the necessary quorum of 65 percent of EU residents was only achieved because of Austria. In the end, 66.07 percent of the EU population voted in favour of the law.

Can Gewessler vote against the Chancellery decision?

That’s complicated, and the courts will decide. 

The Chancellor argues that Austria had already been notified to abstain, a position based on “a uniform opinion of the Regional Governments (Bundesländer), binding for the Federal Government under Austrian constitutional law, as well as the lacking consensus within the Austrian Federal Government ”. 

He means that Austrian states have also agreed not to back the proposal. However, in May, two states, Vienna and Carinthia, pulled out of this vote, as Der Standard reported. This makes it unclear, even among constitutional lawyers, whether there is still a “uniform opinion” and whether Gewessler would be bound by it, the report added.

READ ALSO: Why Vienna is a haven for wild animals – and where you can find them

Criticism from SPÖ and far-right

The SPÖ and FPÖ criticised Gewessler and Nehammer for their actions on Monday. The two had made Austria “the laughing stock of Europe”, said SPÖ climate spokesperson Julia Herr in a press statement. 

“What we are currently experiencing is basically the continuation of the last five years of black-green, only with tougher strikes because the election is approaching,” she said.

Meanwhile, far-right FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl demanded that Nehammer take responsibility for Gewessler’s “ideology-driven solo effort”. In his opinion, the law meant the “death” of domestic agriculture and the security of supply with domestic food.

The major environmental NGOs were very pleased with the approval of Gewessler’s EU nature restoration law: Greenpeace spoke of a “milestone” in a press release, the WWF saw “historic progress”, and Global 2000 saw an “important tool in the fight against the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis”.