Climate change is affecting all regions in Europe, causing a wide range of impacts on society and the environment. Further impacts are expected in the future, potentially causing high damage costs, according to the latest assessment published by the European Environment Agency.
The report, ‘Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2012’ finds that higher average temperatures have been observed across Europe as well as decreasing precipitation in southern regions and increasing precipitation in northern Europe. The Greenland ice sheet, Arctic sea ice and many glaciers across Europe are melting, snow cover has decreased and most permafrost soils have warmed.
Extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and droughts have caused rising damage costs across Europe in recent years. While more evidence is needed to discern the part played by climate change in this trend, growing human activity in hazard-prone areas has been a key factor. Future climate change is expected to add to this vulnerability, as extreme weather events are expected to become more intense and frequent. If European societies do not adapt, damage costs are expected to continue to rise, according to the report.
Some regions will be less able to adapt to climate change than others, in part due to economic disparities across Europe, the report says. The effects of climate change could deepen these inequalities.
The last decade (2002–2011) was the warmest on record in Europe, with European land temperature 1.3° C warmer than the pre-industrial average. Various model projections show that Europe could be 2.5–4° C warmer in the later part of the 21st Century, compared to the 1961–1990 average.
Heat waves have increased in frequency and length, causing tens of thousands of deaths over the last decade. The projected increase in heat waves could increase the number of related deaths over the next decades, unless societies adapt, the report says. However, cold-related deaths are projected to decrease in many countries.
While precipitation is decreasing in southern regions, it is increasing in northern Europe, the report says. These trends are projected to continue. Climate change is projected to increase river flooding, particularly in northernEurope, as higher temperatures intensify the water cycle. However, it is difficult to discern the influence of climate change in flooding data records for the past.
River flow droughts appear to have become more severe and frequent in southern Europe. Minimum river flows are projected to decrease significantly in summer in southern Europe but also in many other parts ofEuropeto varying degrees.
The Arctic is warming faster than other regions. Record low sea ice was observed in the Arctic in 2007, 2011 and 2012, falling to roughly half the minimum extent seen in the 1980s. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet has doubled since the 1990s, losing an average of 250 billion tonnes of mass every year between 2005 and 2009. Glaciers in the Alps have lost approximately two thirds of their volume since 1850 and these trends are projected to continue.
Sea levels are rising, raising the risk of coastal flooding during storm events. Global average sea level has risen by 1.7mm a year in the 20th century, and by 3mm a year in recent decades. Future projections vary widely, but it is likely that 21st century sea-level rise will be greater than during the 20th century. However sea level rise at European coasts varies, for example due to local land movement.
Besides heat-related health impacts, other human health effects are also important, the report says. Climate change plays a part in the transmission of certain diseases. For example, it allows the tick species Ixodes ricinus to thrive further north, while further warming may make parts of Europe more suitable for disease-carrying mosquitos and sandflies. The pollen season is longer and arrives 10 days earlier than 50 years ago, also affecting human health.
Many studies have measured widespread changes in plant and animal characteristics. For example, plants are flowering earlier in the year, while in fresh water phytoplankton and zooplankton blooms are also appearing earlier. Other animals and plants are moving northward or uphill as their habitats warm. Since the migration rate of many species is insufficient to keep pace with the speed of climate change, they could be pushed towards extinction in the future.
While there may be less water available for agriculture in southern Europe, growing conditions may improve in other areas. The growing season for several crops in Europe has lengthened and this is projected to continue, alongside the expansion of warm-season crops into more northerly latitudes. However the yield is projected to fall for some crops due to heat waves and droughts in central and southern Europe.
As temperatures rise, demand for heating has also fallen, saving energy. However, this must be balanced against higher energy demands for cooling during hotter summers.