European temperatures in the last decade were 1.3 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average – the warmest since records began – according to new research by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the EU’s climate advisory body.
Extreme weather events are rare, which means that statistics are not always available to analyse them.
But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s extreme weather report found it probable that the incidence of heat waves and floods had increased in recent years, although there are strong regional variations. A rise in extreme coastal high water related to increases in mean sea level was also rated at between 66%-90% probability.
IPCC scientists also expressed confidence that droughts were becoming more intense and longer, particularly in southern Europe and West Africa, but in central North America and northwestern Australia the reverse seemed to be happening.
Their report finds that since 2002, rainfall has decreased in southern Europe, while increasing in the north, and there have been more extreme weather events.
Meanwhile, the Greenland ice sheet, Arctic sea ice and many European glaciers are melting.
“Climate change is a reality around the world, and the extent and speed of change is becoming ever more evident,” said Jacqueline McGlade, the EEA’s executive director.
“This means that every part of the economy, including households, needs to adapt [to] as well as reduce emissions.”
The EEA's report, ‘Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2012’, says that accelerating climate change impacts will vary across the continent, with the Mediterranean hit by heatwaves, while northern Europe suffers coastal and river floods.
Heatwaves have increased in frequency and length over the last decade causing tens of thousands of deaths, according to the report. Several major droughts have been recorded in recent decades.
At the same time, global sea levels have risen by 3mm a year in the last 20 years, up from 1.7mm during the 20th century, an increase that is transforming Europe’s coastal regions.
“About one quarter of the European coastline for which data is available is eroding, due partly to increasing human activities in the coastal zone,” the report says.
Oceanic temperatures rises are also nudging sub-tropical fish species to migrate north, while on land, there have been 325 major river floods since 1980, of which more than 200 were reported after the year 2000.
The EEA study was published a day after the World Meteorological Organization found that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases hit a new record in 2011, 40% above the pre-industrial level.
Changing seasonal patterns
Interestingly, the EEA paper, which is packed with facts and figures, provides evidence that confirms anecdotal perceptions of changing seasonal patterns.
Pollen seasons last longer - and start on average 10 days earlier - than 50 years ago, and 78% of leaf unfolding and flowering records show advancing trends in recent decades.
Animal behaviour is also changing with frog spawning, and bird nesting and migrations all occurring earlier. Insect seasons are lengthening too, while butterflies continue a slow migration towards the world’s poles.
But many species of flora and fauna are not moving fast enough to out-run rapidly advancing climate change, the report finds.
“By the late 21st century, European plant species are projected to shift several hundred kilometres to the north, forests are likely to contract in the south and expand in the north, and about half of the mountain plant species may face extinction,” it says.
“The rate of climate change is expected to exceed the ability of many plant species to migrate, especially as landscape fragmentation may restrict movement.”
- 2013: IPCC Fifth Assessment report due