Storm and drought: what Europe has to fear from climate change

An olive grove in Spain. [persepic/Flickr]

For most Europeans, the climate change threat is elsewhere: the rising sea levels in south Asia; crop failures in Africa; mightier storms in the tropics, drought in the developing world.

But as French President François Hollande prepares to host a crucial UN climate summit at the end of this month, his fellow Europeans are already facing subtle harbingers of global warming. Seas, mountains, forests, plains, towns and cities – the risks within Europe itself are many, varied and increasingly difficult to ignore.

Forty per cent of the world’s olive oil production comes from Andalucía, which boasts a 1,000-year history of cultivation. Today, 1.5m hectares are dedicated to the crop. But climate change could transform this landscape and erase the cultivation of Andalucían olives.

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“The commodities most harmed by climate change will be those which cannot adapt, like the olive grove or the vineyard,” said Ana Iglesias, agronomist engineer at the Technical University of Madrid and one of the Spanish researchers who contributed to the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report.

Furthermore, olive groves and vineyards do not offer a quick turnaround, with the plants taking decades to reach full maturity. “Now tremendous investments are being made in vineyards and other locations, based on current climate conditions,” she said. “Some areas in Spain will not be cultivated, won’t have any human presence, and will turn into deserts.”

Adding to the problem of the rise in temperature is the increase in severe weather phenomena such as hail and droughts, which hit farmers directly. “I predict a productivity reduction of the extensive and intense cultivations,” said Marta Rivera, an expert in food security at the University of Vic in Catalonia and also a member of the IPCC. “It is not so much a problem affecting a specific cultivation, but rather a conflict of food security.”

Citrus crops have already been hit by the heat this year, with production of some types of mandarins and clementines forecast to be down by as much as 25%.
Manuel Planelles, El País

Above woods filled with chestnut trees is a fir-covered hill with three ski runs. The highest point reaches 1,600 metres; the lowest is close to 1,000 metres. The resort is called Viola Saint Grée, in Italy’s Maritime Alps, on the border of Piedmont and Liguria. The three lifts, one chairlift and two conveyor belts, look a little forlorn. There has been no shortage of investment here – but there is a shortage of snow.

Saint Grée is the picture of abandonment, an ex-resort. It sprang up like a mushroom in the 1970s, after Ligurian entrepreneurs saw a great opportunity for tourism in an area where the humid air of the sea brought abundant snowfall.

Then the snow dried up. Bankruptcy ensued and bailouts were made, including a €700,000 injection this year. But the snow never came back, and climate forecasts suggesting average temperatures will have risen by 2C by 2100 will doom Viola Saint Grée to a ski-less future.

It is one of 50 minor resorts in the Alps that have no place in the economic development of skiing, according to Laurent Vanat, one of the world’s leading ski tourism experts. The highest point of the Viola skiing area is 400 metres below the level guaranteed to have natural snow.

The forecast from the Fondazione Montagna Sicura, an Alpine research centre in Courmayeur, is grim: “The western Alps will have to deal with average annual temperature increases of 2-3C by the end of the century. As a result the limit of the rain/snow line will rise by 500 metres, and the duration of snow on the ground will drop by 20%.”

Vanat said: “The big ski resorts have grasped the significance of the climate risk in the past decade and have taken countermeasures, including the production of artificial snow. The Alps are a unique area for attracting skiers – of whom 30% are foreign – but the expansion in the skiing market is elsewhere, in Russia, China and central Asia.”
Enrico Martinet, La Stampa

Poland has already spent €13bn trying to mitigate the climate change threat, ploughing most of it into efforts to protect cities from the heatwaves and downpours that are becoming more common.

But the biggest risk could be the Baltic Sea. “Most of the shoreline is already retreating, and the coastal communities are pillaging their own natural resources,” said Tomasz ?abuz from Szczecin University, who has studied the Polish coast for years.

In the past 100 years the Baltic Sea has risen by 20cm, which is not yet a threat but is ominous given the proliferation of hotels and apartment buildings being built right on the coastline.

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“We’re not only throwing millions of zloty into the sea, but we’re also creating a dangerous precedent,” said Pawe? ?redzi?ski of WWF Poland. “Soon you’ll see investors trying to develop the wild parts of the shoreline.”

According to a survey conducted by TNS Poland for the environment ministry last year, some 86% of Poles believe climate change is an important issue. “Nobody is questioning whether global warming is actually happening,” said the Environment Minister Maciej Grabowski.

Yet in an essay published recently on a climate science website, Szymon Malinowski, an atmospheric physicist from Warsaw University, complained about the low level of knowledge of MPs on parliamentary environmental committees as well as the poor condition of Polish climatology: there are just a handful of scientists carrying out internationally recognised studies on the climate in Poland. In this case, the scientist observed, it seemed that “parliament is sometimes quite a good reflection of the state of society”.
Tomasz Ulanowski, Gazeta Wyborcza

Severe floods across the UK last year may be a sign of what is to come if climate change is not curtailed. The winter of 2013-2014 was the wettest on record for the country, with severe storms starting in October. By the end of February, more than 7,800 homes and 3,000 businesses had been flooded.

“Flooding is the greatest threat to the UK from climate change,” said Daniel Johns, head of adaptation at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). “The basic physics say there is an increased chance of flooding due to climate change. The hot air can contain more moisture so you get more evaporation from the ocean taken into the atmosphere and warm, moist air is like rocket fuel for storms.”

Warm, moist air is like rocket fuel for storms

Johns said the UK had already observed about one degree of warming since the 1970s; sea levels around the UK coast have risen 15cm since the beginning of the 20th century.

While there are planning policies in place around the UK to try to prevent homes being built on floodplains, the CCC says 1,500 are nevertheless constructed each year in areas of high flood risk. The CCC suggests that the number of homes in England where there is at least a one in 30 chance of flooding will increase from 150,000 to 190,000 in 10 years.

Johns does not foresee a need to relocate entire communities from the floodplains this century, but says it is imperative that rising temperatures are halted.

“This is why it’s so important that the Paris conference succeeds. It will be much easier and cheaper for the UK to adapt to a two degree scenario [limiting warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels] rather than a four degree scenario.”
Kate Lyons, the Guardian

Perhaps the biggest threat that Germany faces is the slow degradation of its forests, with heat and drought affecting the northern lowlands.

Christopher Reyer, forest ecologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said the beech was in danger because it did not sit well in sandy ground. Rising temperatures could encourage the growth of trees on higher plains that were once far too cold. “But the consensus is that most of the effects of climate change will be negative,” said Reyer.

The majority of Germany should be covered by deciduous trees – beech and oak in particular. But there are almost no more natural forests left. Instead, what is growing is what was planted: in the north, mainly pines; in the south, spruce. But spruce could also be a big loser from climate change because it cannot handle drought and its shallow roots are easily damaged in storms. The tree is also at risk from pests, such as pine moths, which feed on its needles as caterpillar larvae.

Other insects become stronger as the temperature rises by a few degrees, with bark beetles’ reproductive cycle increasing to three or even four times a year (they currently have a maximum of two). New pests could be attracted by the warmer weather. Forest fires are also expected to increase, although it is still unknown whether climate change will lead to heavier storms in the south-west of Germany.

Some experts say mixed forests are important, comparing them to an equity portfolio that reduces the risk through mixture. Some are calling for the spread of species such as the Douglas fir or red oak, which do not grow naturally in Germany but can survive drought and pests. However, others swear by a “natural” forest in which only a region’s native plants grow.
Tina Baier, Süddeutsche Zeitung

An excavator was busy in the Fangassier pond in Camargue, which had been drained for the duration of work to create a refuge where flamingos could stay safe from the foxes lurking around the old swamps.

Something had to be done: their old island nest is now under water.

The Camargue, a natural park on the Mediterranean coast in south-east France, is famed for numerous plant and animal species as well as its rice and salt marshes – but it is in danger. The sea will eventually end up covering much of a 6,500-hectare area of the park recently acquired by the French coastal protection agency in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône.

The group that owned the Salins du Midi salt marshes started selling them in 2008 because the rising water meant the coastal ponds were becoming harder and harder to operate, despite the use of electric pumps and embankments.

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The new owners have given up fighting the waters head-on. “We estimate that 2,000 hectares will end up becoming salt marshes again, where bulls and horses traditionally roam in the region, whilst the lower parts will be submerged – although we don’t exactly know how far,” said Gaël Hemery, who helps look after the Camargue park.

Hemery looked over at a part of the seawall now reduced to almost nothing. Fifty years ago, 300 metres of beach stretched out in front of the wall. The sea has proved stronger.

Martine Valo, Le Monde

The Mediterranean is a different sea to the one that lapped Europe’s shores 50 years ago. It’s two or three degrees warmer on average. The layer of warm water is deeper than before, and the period of the year during which the water stays warm is longer.

As a result, marine biologists say that as many as 700 species not detected in the sea before have arrived. All are tropical, and many have come in from the Red Sea via the Suez canal. It’s not just fish such as the cornetfish, but species of jellyfish and algae that are enjoying their new Mediterranean homes. The warmer waters are encouraging species of wrasse and parrotfish to move further north.

We have badly managed a resource believing it is everlasting – it isn’t

It is bad news for some types of coral that don’t like the heat, and that used to thrive below the warmer layer of water. Traditional Mediterranean fish populations have suffered as well.

We have badly managed a resource believing it is everlasting. It isn’t. The presence of traditional fishermen is a barometer of a sea’s health. A sea will be healthy while they’re at sea. They too are disappearing, and we should worry greatly.
Ferdinando Boero, University of Salento

Translations: Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Melanie Cura Daball, Nabeelah Shabbir, Tomasz Jurewicz/VoxEurop, Alberto Nardelli

Negotiations on climate change began in 1992, and the UN organises an annual international climate change conference called the Conference of the Parties, or COP.

The 20th COP took place in Lima, Peru, from 1 to 12 December 2014, and Paris is hosting the all-important 21st conference in December 2015.

The participating states must reach an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the object of which was to reduce CO2 emissions between 2008 and 2012.

The EU’s contribution to the UN agreement is based on deal reached by EU leaders in October 2014. It sets out a binding emissions reduction goal of at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990. The objective is described in the agreement as “a binding, economy-wide reduction target, covering all sectors and all sources of emissions, including agriculture, forestry and other land uses”.

>>Read: EU leaders adopt 'flexible' energy and climate targets for 2030

Agreeing on a UN framework, whether legally binding or not, is the priority between now and December.

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