warming in europe

Left and right figures show warming in Europe of the summer half year during the latest four decades, sub-divided for clear-sky and all-sky conditions, respectively. Credit: Paul Glantz/Stockholm University

The warming during the summer months in Europe has been much faster than the global average, finds a new study by scientists at Stockholm University (P. Glantz, O. G. Fawole, J. Ström, M. Wild, K. J. Noone, Unmasking the Effects of Aerosols on Greenhouse Warming Over Europe, Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 2022; 127 (22) DOI: 10.1029/2021JD035889).

As a consequence of human emissions of greenhouse gases, the climate across the continent has also become drier, particularly in southern Europe, leading to worse heat waves and an increased risk of fires.

According to a report by The Guardian, temperatures in Europe have increased at more than twice the global average in the last 30 years, according to a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The effects of this warming are already being seen, with droughts, wildfires and ice melts taking place across the continent. The European State of the Climate report, produced with the EU’s Copernicus service, warns that as the warming trend continues, exceptional heat, wildfires, floods and other climate breakdown outcomes will affect society, economies and ecosystems.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warming over land areas occurs significantly faster than over oceans, with 1.6 degrees and 0.9 degrees on average, respectively. It means that the global greenhouse gas emissions budget to stay under a 1.5-degree warming on land has already been used up. Now, the new study shows that the emissions budget to avoid a 2-degree warming over large parts of Europe during the summer half-year (April-September) has also been used up. In fact, measurements reveal that the warming during the summer months in large parts of Europe during the last four decades has already surpassed two degrees.

In southern Europe, a clear, so-called, positive feedback caused by global warming is evident, i.e. warming is amplified due to drier soil and decreased evaporation. Moreover, there has been less cloud coverage over large parts of Europe, probably as a result of less water vapor in the air.

Impact of Aerosol Particles

The study by scientists at the Stockholm University also includes a section about the estimated impact of aerosol particles on the temperature increase.

According to Paul Glantz, one of the scientists conducting the study, the rapid warming in, for example, Central and Eastern Europe, is first and foremost a consequence of the human emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. But since emissions of short-lived aerosol particles from, for example, coal-fired power plants have decreased greatly over the past four decades, the combined effect has led to an extreme temperature increase of over two degrees.

According to Paul Glantz, this effect provides a harbinger of future warming in areas where aerosol emissions are high, such as in India and China.

decrease in clouds

The Greenhouse Effect And Aerosol Effect

Fossil burning leads to the release of both aerosol particles and greenhouse gases. Although their source is common, their effects on climate differ.

southern europe

The Greenhouse Effect

Greenhouse gases are largely unaffected by solar radiation while they absorb infrared radiation efficiently, leading to re-emission towards the Earth’s surface. The Earth absorbs both solar radiation and infrared radiation, which leads to the warming of the lower part of the atmosphere in particular.

Time-space: Greenhouse gases are generally long-lived in the atmosphere and this applies above all to carbon dioxide where human emissions affect climate for hundreds to thousands of years. It also means that greenhouse gases spread evenly over the entire planet.

The Aerosol Effect

In contrast to greenhouse gases, aerosol particles affect incoming solar radiation, i.e. they scatter part of the sunlight back into space causing a cooling effect. Human emissions of aerosols can enhance this cooling effect.

Time-space: Airborne human aerosol particles have a lifetime of about a week, which means that they mainly cool the climate locally or regionally and in the short term.

According to the Paris Agreement, all parties must commit to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also important to decrease concentrations of aerosol particles as well because, in addition to their effects on climate, aerosol particles in polluted air cause approximately eight million premature deaths each year around the world.

The report by the Guardian said:

From 1991 to 2021, temperatures in Europe have warmed at an average rate of about 0.5C a decade. This has had physical results: Alpine glaciers lost 30 meters in ice thickness between 1997 and 2021, while the Greenland ice sheet has also been melting, contributing to sea level rise. In summer 2021, Greenland had its first ever recorded rainfall at its highest point, Summit station.

It said:

Human life has been lost as a result of the extreme weather events. The report says that in 2021, high impact weather and climate events – 84% of which were floods and storms – led to hundreds of fatalities, directly affected more than 500,000 people, and caused economic damages exceeding $50bn.

“Europe presents a live picture of a warming world and reminds us that even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events,” said the WMO secretary general, Prof Petteri Taalas. “This year, like 2021, large parts of Europe have been affected by extensive heatwaves and drought, fuelling wildfires. In 2021, exceptional floods caused death and devastation.”

The WMO report also found that this trend was very likely to continue, with more weather disasters predicted in the future. It predicts that temperatures will rise in all European areas at a rate exceeding global mean temperature changes, similar to past observations. As the climate warms to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the weather events will accelerate, with ever-decreasing summer rainfall likely to cause devastating droughts. Extreme rain and flooding are likely to follow in the later months in all regions except the Mediterranean.

Though the report makes for grim reading, there is some good news. It notes that many European countries have been very good at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and EU emissions decreased 31% between 1990 and 2020. Europe has also acted to protect people from the worst effects of the climate emergency, with extreme weather-warning systems protecting about 75% of people, while heat-health action plans have saved many lives.

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