Europe blistered in unprecedented heat in June, only to be scorched again less than a month later. Aside from the desperate urge to keep cool, at the forefront of everyone’s mind was the question: how much of this extreme weather is down to climate change?
A report published today by the World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has the answer: climate change made the UK’s heatwave twice as likely, and the heatwave in France and the Netherlands as much as staggering 100 times more likely. Across all regions of Europe, heatwave temperatures would have been 1.5 to three degrees Celsius lower in the absence of climate change.
Across Europe new heat records were set this summer. In Belgium and the Netherlands, the mercury bubbled above 40C for the first time, while Paris and the UK recorded the hottest ever temperatures of 42.6C and 38.7C respectively. The WWA’s report designated the weather experienced in July in France and the Netherlands a rare event in today’s climate, estimated to occur every 50 to 150 years. In the UK, a heatwave of this magnitude would be expected once every ten years.
The heat spell in France and the Netherlands would have been highly unlikely to occur in a world predating climate change – such an extreme heatwave should only happen about once in a thousand years. The relatively higher likelihood of the UK heatwave is partly explained by its shorter duration, with extreme temperatures only occurring across one to two days.
The WWA is an international research initiative examining the influence of climate change on all types of extreme weather. The latest research was the result of the collaborative efforts of the ECI, the Dutch Met office (KNMI), the UK Met Office and Météo France and looked at data from across all of France and in five European cities in France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.
The initiative first analysed observed data from weather stations, and then calculated the likelihood of these events occurring in today’s climate, as well as in today’s world in the absence of climate change.
“We know very well how many additional greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,” says Friederike Otto, acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “We can take these additional greenhouse gases out of climate models of the atmosphere and simulate the world that might have been without manmade climate change, but that is in other respects exactly the same as today.”
The WWA has been analysing unusual weather phenomena since 2015 and their goal is to publish the results as soon after the weather event as possible. “We aim to do this kind of analysis when the world is still listening and asking the question, ‘What’s the role of climate change?’,” says Otto. Generally in the case of scientific studies, the length of time between the event occurring, and the study being carried out, peer-reviewed and published can span up to a year, by which point public interest has waned.
To ensure that this doesn’t happen, the initiative has developed scientifically validated and peer-reviewed methods that can be used to measure different weather events. “If scientists don’t give an answer, then other people usually give answers that are not based on scientific evidence, but on political opinions,” Otto says.
This research firmly underlines that the extreme heatwaves across the world are significantly exacerbated by human induced climate destruction. Previous research from the initiative found that every European heatwave studied so far has been made more likely and more intense by pollution-fuelled climate change.
“July has re-written climate history, with dozens of new temperature records at local, national and global level,” said World Meteorological Oganisation’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “The extraordinary heat was accompanied by dramatic ice melt in Greenland, in the Arctic and on European glaciers. Unprecedented wildfires raged in the Arctic for the second consecutive month, devastating once pristine forests which used to absorb carbon dioxide and instead turning them into fiery sources of greenhouse gases. This is not science fiction. It is the reality of climate change. It is happening now and it will worsen in the future without urgent climate action.”
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