Europes chaotic weather in 2018 is wake-up call for climate change
08 January 2019 | Mitigation
Europe was one continent that experienced abnormal weather during 2018. After a couple months of extremely cold weather, heat and drought through spring and summer meant temperatures were well above average in much of the northern and western areas.
2018, a year of weather extremes
The highest temperatures ever were recorded in the Arctic Circle. In Helsinki-Vantaa Finland, figures how record long runs of warm temperatures. There were 25 consecutive days of heat above 25ºC.
It was exceptionally warm in the United Kingdom and Ireland too and wildfires swept through Sweden burning up 25,000 hectares of land.
Greece experience its deadliest fire season in a decade, and in september experienced a rare 'Medicane', a Mediterranean “Hurricane”.
Budapest saw its iconic Danube river drying.
Portugal had its hottest day of the 21st century at 44ºC and Armenia had its warmest July since records began. Temperatures in capital Yerevan reached 43.7ºC.
Dry conditions persisted in Germany, where the April to September period was the second driest on record. Frankfurt sweltered in 19 consecutive days of heat above 30ºC from 23 July to 9 August.
In February, Estonia experienced its second coldest period and abnormal amounts of snow-covered southern France with falls of 15 to 30 cm in Nimes and Montpellier.
Record snow fell in southern Italy, especially in Naples.
In October, an intense low-pressure weather system in the Mediterranean Sea brought deadly flooding and high winds to several countries.
Italy was hit with gusts reaching 179 kmh at Monte Cimone.
The system sparked heavy rainfall, with 24-hour totals up to 406 mm in the northeast alpine foothills and 308 mm in Liguria. At least 30 people died in incidents associated with the October storm. At least 10 people died in Southern France, and there was a similar number of victims in Mallorca.
End of September heavy rains killed at least 8 people in Southern Spain regions of Málaga, Murcia and Almería.
Was 2018 a turning point for the climate?
So how does 2018 compare to previous years? We have seen, and often experience many exceptional weather events: but the weather and the climate are two different things. Is this the unequivocal sign that the climate has changed?
Is there a way to turn back or do we have to get used to living with colder winters, heatwaves and flooding, depending on where we live? Is this the worst year so far?
"It was a bit of a wake-up call," said Professor Sonia Seneviratne, of the ETH Zurich Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, who in her work analyses climate extremes.
"In other years there have been extreme events but maybe what was different this year is that it was really affecting Europe, the United States" she said.
Dr Friederike Otto, the acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford in Britain, researches extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves and heavy rainfall.
“I think in Europe, at least this year has brought home that climate change is actually something that is happening now and here in our backyard,” she said.
“We’ve seen that it’s not something that is a concern in the future and for people in developing countries only.”
Last year was the fourth warmest year on record together with 2015, 2016 and 2017, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
“It (2018) was another year where the impact of climate change on the climate and the weather was really obvious," Otto said.
Then the 2018 climate is the new normal?
But was the year unusual, when compared with recent years? Not for Otto, who also works with the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"It's not unusual given that we are living in a world where climate change exists and already has an impact," she said.
"We found in our study on the heatwaves in Europe that parts like Dublin, Denmark and Oslo - it was not such a rare event as it can occur every seven years. But in the far north, in areas like Finland, it is very rare. The very high temperature was exceptional even in a climate change world."
People trying to refresh in Sweden last August.Reuters
"What we have seen in 2018 and in summer especially it's exceptional. Where many places where we expect heatwaves to happen more, it has actually happened. It would have felt very extreme if we didn't have climate change. But given that we are living in a world which is already one degree warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. It's extreme."
For senior climate scientist Freja Vamborg of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), it's more complicated.
"Well, it’s very difficult to say. Because if we look at this year, in general, it has been very warm in all of Europe apart from February and March," Vamborg said.
"For me what’s more striking is not the intensity of a single event, or the number of extreme events it’s kind of the persistent pattern across almost the whole year" she said.
The pattern of warmer and dryer conditions in Northern Europe almost during the whole 2018 is striking according to scientistCopernicus Climate Change service
“It has been an extreme year in many ways but it’s difficult to say has it been more extreme? Certain things have been more extreme, like certain things have been more extreme than we’ve seen before. The temperatures in Europe are going to be one of the warmest on record if not the warmest” she adds, warning that the climate change is dramatic in the Arctic, where "we are seeing a new era".
Prof Seneviratne thinks that what makes 2018 especially exceptional is how many weather events took place at the same time over a widespread area.
While 2018 was not the warmest year, for Seneviratne it was the most extreme.
“In my opinion, it was the most extreme year,” she said.
“We haven’t had so many extreme events before. It’s a combination of global warming and additionally some unusual and very persistent weather patterns.”
Seneviratne says that if these weather patterns existed under cooler conditions, before global warming, it's possible we would not have experienced so many extreme weather events in one year.
“Because we wouldn’t have the background warming. So the occurrence of these extreme events was the combination of this very strong warming and also unusual weather patterns.”