heatwaves and drought is becoming more frequent in Europe

Why are Heatwaves and Droughts Becoming More Frequent in Europe?

In Insurance, Insurance News, News by Stephanie Brain

Why are Heatwaves and Droughts
Becoming More Frequent in Europe?

Intense heat across Europe has broken June temperature records sparking forest fires in some countries. Experts at the World Meteorological Organisation warn that it's a sign of worrying climate change trends.

Europe is predicted to experience more searing heat this summer. Countries across Europe including France, Spain and Italy have already experienced high temperatures and were affected by droughts and forest fires in May-June 2022. A heatwave of “extraordinary intensity” impacted Southern Spain late May 2022, with some areas experiencing temperatures between 10C and 15C above the seasonal average. The country also experienced forest fires which devoured 25,000 hectares. In France, record-breaking temperatures were recorded during the month of June 2022, with record peak temperatures of 42-43 °C. Additionally, in Italy, the River Po is running dry following early heatwaves, which places the country at risk of facing its worst drought in 70 years. Fears of an agriculture “catastrophe” threatens the country as sea water crashes through barriers and rushes up rivers, rendering irrigation difficult for farmers. 

Far from being isolated events, many European countries have already endured high temperatures, and experts have warned that more heatwaves and droughts will impact Europe in the next few months. Royal HaskoningDHV's technology provides software solutions for predicting heat and drought stress, and equips large commercial enterprises, insurers, mortgage lenders, and government organisations with tools and solutions to better mitigate those risks.

Heatwave record tmperatures set in june 2022 in France

Source: Meteo, France
Map of record temperatures experienced in France in June 2022

The Increase in Heatwaves in Europe
According to the Met Office, a heatwave is an extended period of hot weather relative to the expected conditions of the area at that time of year. There is no standard definition for heatwaves as their impact depends on many factors such as the climate, the acclimatisation of the population and socio-demographic characteristics. However, it is generally understood as three consecutive days with maximum temperatures above the daily threshold for the reference period of 1981-2010. 

Heatwaves are not a new phenomenon, however, the recent decades have witnessed a high number of heatwaves across Europe, with experts estimating that the probability for Europe to experience major heatwaves in the coming decades is higher.

 In the last two decades, Europe has experienced several large-scale heatwaves. The 2019 and 2021 heatwaves saw record high temperatures as countries were hit with severe and long-lasting heatwaves. The Copernicus Climate Change Services warned that the last seven years have been the warmest on record, a trend that is likely to continue in the next years.

Recent Heatwaves in Europe

2003 Heatwave
In the summer of 2003, Europe experienced a historic heatwave which caused more than 15,000 deaths in France alone and 7,000 in Germany. European countries experienced record high temperatures, notably Southern and Eastern France which experienced temperatures that were 10 degrees Celsius hotter in 2003 than in 2001. For more than a week, temperatures remained around 37 degrees Celsius in some areas of France. In total, across Europe, more than 70,000 people died (PDF file) as Europe experienced the warmest temperature for up to 500 years.

2019 Heatwave
In the summer of 2019, Europe experienced two large-scale heat waves in June and July, which were the world’s deadliest disasters of 2019 (PDF file). New records for European-average June temperature were established with Belgium and the Netherlands surpassing 40°C for the first time. New national records were also set in Luxembourg, the UK and Germany.

2021 Heatwave
In 2021, Europe was hit by another heatwave.EU scientists reported that the summer of 2021 was the hottest summer ever recorded in Europe. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Services (C3S), the European temperature was one degree Celsius above the 2019-2020 average. The provisional heat record for the whole of Europe was recorded in Italy in August 2021, with temperatures hitting 48.8 degrees Celsius in Sicily. 

As temperatures reached a record high, Europe was ravaged by wildfires in Turkey, Greece, Finland and Italy. High temperatures led to drought and forest fires.

surface air temperature anomaly for may 2022 by copernicus

Surface air temperature anomaly for May 2022 relative to the May average for the period 1991-2020. Data source: ERA5. Credit: Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF.

The Rising Risk of Extreme Droughts 

According to National Geographic, a drought is a period of time when an area or region experiences below-normal precipitation. The lack of precipitation causes reduced soil moisture or groundwater, crop damage, general water shortage and diminished stream flow. Due to its characteristics, it can be challenging to pinpoint when a drought has started and when it has ended. 

The effects of a drought can be difficult to assess and might take months to assess. It is a recurrent feature of the European climate and affects considerably some parts of the Europe population. 

According to the European Environment Agency, the frequency and severity of meteorological and hydrological droughts have increased in most parts of Europe. The increase is greatest in Southern Europe. This tendency is projected to continue as studies project further increases in the duration, frequency and severity of droughts for most of Europe, expects for parts of North-Eastern and Central-Eastern Europe.

Recent droughts in Europe 

The summer of 2018 saw a severe drought in North-Western Europe, caused by low precipitations and record-high temperatures. The drought resulted in widespread losses in forestry and agriculture and produced a €3.3 billion overall loss, which was this year's costlier event in Europe. According to reports from reinsurers, only a small portion of the losses was insured (€230m).

The 2019 Drought was caused by a combination of drivers: the influence of the 2018 drought, the below-average precipitations in spring 2019 and the heatwaves of 2019. The drought intensified after the heatwave of late July in central Europe, also affecting France and Spain. Dry conditions also affected more of Europe for the third consecutive year in 2020.

landscape of dry earth ground and viaduct, extreme drought in Entrepenas reservoir, in Guadalajara, Castilla, Spain Europe

Extreme drought in Entrepenas reservoir, in Guadalajara, Castilla, Spain

Climate change and the risk of flooding

Climate change will impact the Balearics, as the five islands are at increasing risk of permanent loss of land. It is expected to cause widespread ecological and economic impacts, especially in the urban and densely populated areas of the islands. Additionally, climate change could increase the intensity of waves and storm surges, causing severe economic impact and the loss of tourist areas.

The loss of tourist recreational services represents a GDP loss up to 7.2% with respect to the 2019 GDP. Up to 65% of the beach area in the Balearic Islands will be permanently lost due to the climate crisis. During storms conditions, up to 80% of beaches could be lost.

Researchers revealed that 2018 to 2020 European drought was unprecedented in its intensity, covering more than one-third of the continent for more than two years. This risk is likely to increase according to experts. Should the risk increase, the damages it causes will also increase, especially as droughts are among the most expensive weather-related disasters

In Europe such periods of drought cause numerous issues, from property damage to water scarcity, affecting at least 11%< of the population.

forest fires in europe june 2022

Spain is battling wildfires fuelled by one of earliest heatwaves on record. One blaze has burned 25,000 hectares of Sierra de la Culebra, home to one of Europe’s largest wolf populations.

Future Risks and How to Mitigate them? 

The consequences of heatwaves/drought 
Heatwaves and drought impact Europe in various ways, some of them being more direct than others. Heatwaves and drought have an impact on the availability of fresh water, as changes in snow and glacier dynamics and rainfall patterns could cause temporary water shortages across Europe. Additionally, changes to river flow caused by heat stress can also lead to droughts. 

They are also major causes of wildfires, which ravaged hundreds of thousands of hectares each year. In 2021 alone, more than 800,000 hectares were destroyed in the Mediterranean region.

Drought and heatwaves also harm agriculture. Summer 2018 had a devastating effect on farmers due to high temperatures and low precipitations. It impacts the capacity of ecosystems to provide important services and goods (cool air, supply of clean water) Additionally, heatwaves have an impact on human health as it increases mortality and reduces productivity. 

Heatwaves can also shift the geographical distribution of climate zones, which will change the distribution and abundance of plants and animal species and impact the behaviour and lifecycles of animals/plants. It can lead to increased numbers of pests/invasive species and a higher incidence of certain diseases. 

Lastly, droughts and heatwaves have an economic impact on Europe. The European Central Bank has identified heat and drought stress as primary risks. In Europe, roughly EUR 9 billion in annual losses are caused by drought which affects agriculture, the energy sector and the public water supply. It is predicted that it will continue to cause billions in economic losses in Europe, with losses increasing as the risk of droughts and heatwaves is on the rise. 

How technology can help prepare for this changing climate

With more than 140 years of industry-leading resilience engineering expertise, Royal Haskoning DHV’s Climate Software Suite helps large enterprises, insurers, mortgage providers to assess the potential impact of climate risk on their businesses  and portfolios of physical assets, and discover actionable insights to help manage and mitigate those risks. The impact of climate risks, especially droughts and heatwaves, will increase until 2050 and will be concentrated in some areas and sectors.

The potential impact for corporates and banks is very severe, with possible consequences for financial stability. Being better equipped to prevent and mitigate those risks is crucial.

Royal HaskoningDHV’s Climate Risk Management Platform contains real-time natural hazard risk exposure analysis, covers the entire planet, and includes data on every major natural hazard.

Royal HaskoningDHV’s technology supports businesses and banks by:

  • Assessing climate risk
  • Identifying best practices and the limitations that banks are facing
  • Understanding their level of preparedness and enhanced data availability and their awareness of climate risk and their vulnerabilities.

Royal HaskoningDHV helps organisations at every stage of their climate risk management process, with an evidence-based understanding of where, when and why they are exposed to catastrophic risk. Our technology is helping businesses progress through reporting and regulatory declarations, preparing for disaster response, informing insurance decisions and ultimately risk engineering to keep your people and assets safe from severe weather events.

As the risk of heat stress and drought stress is rising, with an increase in economic and human loss, using technology to prevent further losses is essential to help businesses adapt and mitigate risks.

Contact Ted Bartholomeusz for more information about these new opportunities to understand heat and drought stress risk
E: ted.bartholomeusz@rhdhv.com
T: +44 (0)1273 006904

Share this Post