Aug 17, 2017

Sweltering European summer has human fingerprints

Italy
by
Andrew King
,
Climate Home
Fires burning across Greece (pictured), Portugal, Italy and Croatia have been exacerbated by extraordinary heat. Photo: Юкатан, Commons
Fires burning across Greece (pictured), Portugal, Italy and Croatia have been exacerbated by extraordinary heat. Photo: Юкатан, Commons

Parts of Europe are having a devastatingly hot summer. Already we’ve seen heat records topple in western Europe in June, and now a heatwave nicknamed “Lucifer” is bringing stifling conditions to areas of southern and eastern Europe.

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The first study to link a specific extreme weather event to climate change examined the record hot European summer of 2003. Since then, multiple studies have assessed the role of human influences in European extreme weather. Broadly speaking, we expect hotter summers and more frequent and intense heatwaves in this part of the world.

We also know that climate change increased deaths in the 2003 heatwaves and that climate change-related deaths are projected to rise in the future.

To understand the role of climate change in the latest European heatwave, I looked at changes in the hottest summer days over southeast Europe – a region that incorporates Italy, Greece and the Balkans.

I calculated the frequency of extremely hot summer days in a set of climate model simulations, under four different scenarios: a natural world without human influences, the world of today (with about 1C of global warming), a 1.5C global warming world, and a 2C warmer world. I chose the 1.5C and 2C benchmarks because they correspond to the targets described in the Paris Agreement.

As the heatwave is ongoing, we don’t yet know exactly how much hotter than average this event will turn out to be. To account for this uncertainty I used multiple thresholds based on historically very hot summer days. These thresholds correspond to an historical 1-in-10-year hottest day, a 1-in-20-year hottest day, and a new record for the region exceeding the observed 2007 value.

While we don’t know exactly where the 2017 event will end up, we do know that it will exceed the 1-in-10 year threshold and it may well breach the higher thresholds too.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of hot summer days in southeast Europe. Likelihoods of the hottest summer days exceeding the historical 1-in-10 year threshold, one-in-20 year threshold and the current record are shown for four scenarios: a natural world, the current world, a 1.5C world, and a 2C world. Best estimate likelihoods are shown with 90% confidence intervals in parentheses.

Whatever threshold I used, I found that climate change has greatly increased the likelihood of extremely hot summer days. The chance of extreme hot summer days, like this event, has increased by at least fourfold because of human-caused climate change.

My analysis shows that under natural conditions the kind of extreme heat we’re seeing over southeast Europe would be rare. In contrast, in the current world and possible future worlds at the Paris Agreement thresholds for global warming, heatwaves like this would not be particularly unusual at all.