Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 546, 18 August 2022

Europe: Heatwaves, wildfires, and droughts
Padmashree Anandhan

Recent developments
On 13 August, UK’s Environmental Agency issued an “amber heat warning” expecting the extreme temperature and heatwaves to continue in Southern UK and a draught warning till next year. As per the Meteorological office report, the temperatures ranged from 34°C to 40°C and drought was declared in eight zones of England.

On 14 August, the European union’s fire monitoring service reported the persisting heatwaves and absence of rainfall as a result of climate change that has led to the spread of wildfires across Europe. France, the UK, Spain, Romania, and Portugal have recorded the highest incidences of wildfires, drought, and flooding. According to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) spokesperson: “The situation in terms of drought and extremely high temperatures has affected all of Europe this year and the overall situation in the region is worrying, while we are still in the middle of the fire season.”

On 16 August, Spain’s ministry for the Ecological Transition reported record-high temperatures in Spain since 1961; the temperature was more than 44°C while the average was 25.6°C, an increase of 2.7°C from 1981 to 2010. In response, the government installed climate shelters in libraries, sports centres, museums, and schools mainly to help the old, children, and people with chronic diseases. In terms of forest fires, close to 265,000 hectares have been destroyed, for which the government signed a decree to propose plans to control such fires. 

The continuing heatwaves, wildfires, and extreme temperatures have led to drought conditions in many places including drying of major river basins such as the Po River in Italy, the Rhine River in Germany, and water shortages in Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. It has disrupted ship movements and affected the livelihoods of close to 30 percent of the population living in the Po River. According to European Commission, the drying up of the Po River has severely damaged agriculture, coastal zones, and livestock.

On 18 August, The Washington Post reported on the melting of European glaciers. The Alps, which is a source of many rivers, providing 90 percent of water to lowland Europe was observed to be declining. According to the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, spokesperson: “The combined heat and lack of precipitation have put the glaciers in a state that is unprecedented.” As per satellite data, during the heatwaves in June the temperature rose to 10°C shrinking several glaciers and thinning snow cover.

How have weather anomalies continued in Europe?
When it comes to 20th-century Europe, extreme weather conditions are nothing new. It started in 1920 with dry autumn and winter which affected the water supply, agriculture, and livestock farming. It later developed into wildfires, severe drought, and dry hazards in England, the Czech Republic, and parts of central Europe.  This phenomenon continued through the summers of 2003, 2010, and 2015. Later, the rise in global temperatures, soil moisture deficit, and increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) turned hot summers a regular feature in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2022. The first severe heatwave which began in 2003 recorded 35°C to 40°C according to the UNEP data. The anticyclone weather in western Europe blocked the “rain-bearing depressions” that enter the Atlantic Ocean resulting in hot air across the Mediterranean, western, central, and parts of southern Europe. It impacted agricultural production, melted the Alpine glaciers by up to 10 percent, and increased energy demands. After 2003, the temperature peaked again in 2015, when the range increased from 35°C to 36.7°C, with 39.7°C marking the highest in Paris. According to the American Meteorological Society report, UK’s cold winters, extreme sun, cyclone movement, tidal flooding, and drought impacted the snow accumulation in the US, Arctic Sea, and wildfires in Alaska. It found that such weather conditions were not just due to climate change, but a result of internal climate variations and cyclone activity that is human-induced. After 2015, this year has been a landmark year for continued heatwaves, rising temperatures, increased wildfires, and droughts. 

How widespread are the anomalies?
First, extreme heat temperatures have prevailed across Europe without exemption. Since 2003,  the heatwaves have occurred between July and August. The hottest recorded temperature of 41.5°C on 11 August in 2003 was felt across western Europe (France, Spain, Germany, and Italy), extending into central Europe (western Czech Republic, Hungary, and southern Romania) and a high concentration in the Mediterranean region. In 2015, the heatwaves extended all the way to eastern Europe, with high temperatures recorded in Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland between 40°C- 44°C. Central Europe has continued to experience temperature extremities due to internal variability factors as noted in the American Met report. Currently, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, the heatwave is concentrated in the western region of the Mediterranean and is expected to move further towards France reflecting high levels of temperature and ozone pollution.

Second, forests, similar to oceans, are crucial for rejuvenating the atmosphere and keeping a check on the levels of toxic substances. When the amount of GHGs increase, unchecked human activities, and climate variations lead to forest fires. The EU strategy on adaptation to climate change recognized climate variations as the risk factor for forest fires in Europe. According to EEAs data, the fires in southern Europe (France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) except Portugal show a decreased trend. Coinciding with the heatwaves, extreme weather, and drought, more wildfires were recorded in 2018 in central and northern Europe, especially Sweden. The Canadian Fire Weather Index (FWI) found in its assessment an increased “meteorological fire danger” for western-central European countries with less risk for north-eastern and northern European countries. Portugal, Spain, France, and Turkey remain in the “highest absolute fire danger” category; principally, Spain and France have been experiencing the highest record of wildfires since 2005. Modelling studies show that the EUMED5 (Europe Mediterranean) countries are likely to see their wildfires double when the global temperature increases by another 3°C.

Third, droughts are ranked the second most life-threatening disaster after floods. For Europe, which is experiencing heatwaves, wildfires, and flash floods, droughts are more damaging and have cost the economy 621 million euros between 1950 and 2014. Two decades earlier, the Mediterranean and the Carpathian regions were regarded as drought-prone. However, with similar heatwaves in central Europe since 2015 and particularly in 2019, drought conditions have been prevalent in Poland, eastern Germany, and the Czech Republic and covering all of central Europe. The impact of the droughts can be seen across southern and central Europe.  High temperatures and evapotranspiration have turned the “rainfall deficit” regions dry, crippling them with “temperature dominated drought risks” over two decades.

What causes the extreme heat waves? 
Heatwaves and rising temperatures are a result of increased human activities and rising global temperatures. However, high concentrations of carbon dioxide gases, flow of jet streams where the hot air from Africa, circulation of the atmosphere and the ocean is attributed to Europe.  

No two heatwaves are the same and they also differ in temperatures due to “upper-level low-pressure air” called the “cutoff low” caused by the cut-off from the westerly winds of the mid-latitude jet stream that circles the planet at high altitudes. Low-pressure zones tend to draw air toward them. In this case, the low-pressure zone has been steadily drawing air from North Africa toward it and pumping hot air northward into Europe. A study published in Nature keeping Europe as the centre of heatwave hotspots found increased occurrences of double jet streams since 2003, the same year when the heatwaves began. Observational and model-based studies have discovered the cause behind the rise in temperatures to be “blocking anticyclones,” which act as a high-pressure system creating a double-jet stream.  Such flows of double jets streams are expected to become more common when zonal flows are weakened under Arctic amplification. 

Offering another view, a recent study by the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and the Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton (UK), using a “high-resolution climate model,” found that anomalies in the ocean temperature along with atmospheric variation and disturbances in the sea ice resulted in the 2015 heatwaves in Europe.

What lies ahead for Europe?
Central and southern parts of Europe are highly vulnerable to heatwaves, wildfires, and drought, while northern and northeastern parts are prone to wildfires. The Mediterranean region, especially the EUMED5 countries, is like to be the most impacted by reviewing the data of the last two decades. Hence more efforts are required to maintain the temperatures in the Mediterranean region to keep the weather, wind pressure, and cyclonic activities in check. The focus needs to be on shifting conservatory measures and climate actions toward the oceans and marine biodiversity for countries that are prone to immediate weather anomalies.  

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