The climate crisis will lead to a rise in the average global temperature and to more frequent high-temperature extremes, such as heatwaves. Higher temperatures can cause increased mortality, reduced productivity and damage to infrastructure. The most vulnerable members of the population, such as the elderly and infants, will be most severely affected.
Higher temperatures are also expected to cause a shift in the geographical distribution of climate zones. These changes will impact the distribution and abundance of many plant and animal species, which are already under pressure from habitat loss and pollution.
Temperature rises are also likely to influence phenology – the behaviour and lifecycles of animal and plant species. This could in turn lead to increased numbers of pests and invasive species, and a higher incidence of certain human diseases.
Meanwhile, the yields and viability of agriculture and livestock, or the capacity of ecosystems to provide important services and goods (such as the supply of clean water or cool and clean air) could be diminished.
Higher temperatures increase the evaporation of water, which – together with the lack of precipitation – increase the risks of severe droughts.
Low-temperature extremes (cold spells, frosty days) could become less frequent in Europe, and milder winter temperatures might also reduce winter deaths. However, global warming affects the predictability of events and therefore our capacity to respond effectively.
Drought and wildfires
Due to the changing climate, many European regions are already facing more frequent, severe, and longer lasting droughts. A drought is an unusual and temporary deficit in water availability caused by the combination of lack of precipitation and more evaporation (due to high temperatures). It differs from water scarcity, which is the structural year round lack of fresh water resulting from over-consumption of water by humans.
Droughts often have knock-on effects, for example on transport infrastructure, agriculture, forestry, water and biodiversity. They reduce water levels in rivers and ground water, stunt tree and crop growth, increase pest attacks and fuel wildfires.
In Europe, most of the roughly EUR 9 billion annual losses caused by drought affect agriculture, the energy sector and the public water supply. Extreme droughts are becoming more common in Europe, and the damage they cause is also mounting.
With global average temperature increase of 3°C, it is projected that droughts would happen twice as often and absolute annual losses from droughts in Europe would increase to EUR 40 billion per year, with the most severe impacts in the Mediterranean and Atlantic regions (PESETA IV report).
More frequent and severe droughts will increase the length and severity of the wild fire season, particularly in the Mediterranean area. Climate change is also expanding the area at risk from wild fires. Regions that are not currently prone to fires could fall into risk areas.
Availability of fresh water
As the climate heats up, rainfall patterns changes, evaporation increases, glaciers melt and sea levels rise. All these factors affect the availability of fresh water.
More frequent and severe droughts and rising water temperatures are expected to cause a decrease in water quality. Such conditions encourage the growth of toxic algae and bacteria, which will worsen the problem of water scarcity that has been largely caused by human activity.
The increase of cloudburst events (sudden extreme rainfall) is also likely to influence the quality and quantity of fresh water available, as storm water can cause uncleaned sewage to enter surface water.
Europe’s rivers generally originate in mountainous areas, and 40% of Europe’s fresh water comes from the Alps. However, changes in snow and glacier dynamics, and patterns of rainfall may lead to temporary water shortages across Europe. Changes to river flows due to drought may also affect inland shipping and the production of hydroelectric power.
Climate change is expected to lead an increase of precipitation in many areas. Increased rainfall over extended periods will mainly lead to fluvial (river) flooding, while short, intense cloudbursts can cause pluvial floods, where extreme rainfall causes flooding without any body of water overflowing.
River flooding is a common natural disaster in Europe, which has, along with storms, resulted in fatalities, affected millions of people and incurred massive economic losses in the last three decades. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of flooding across Europe in the coming years.
Heavy rainstorms are projected to become more common and more intense due to higher temperatures, with flash floods expected to become more frequent across Europe.
In some regions, certain risks such as early spring floods could decrease in the short term with less winter snowfall, but the increased risk of flash flooding in mountain areas overloading the river system – may offset positive effects in the medium term.
Sea-level rise and coastal areas
The sea level rose over the course of the 20th century, and the tendency has accelerated in recent decades.
The rise is mostly due to thermal expansion of the oceans because of warming. But melting ice from glaciers and the Antarctic ice sheet is also contributing. It is predicted that Europe will experience an average 60-80 cm rise in the sea level by the end of the century, mainly depending on the rate at which the Antarctic ice sheet melts.
Around a third of the EU’s population lives within 50 km of the coast and these areas generate over 30% of the Union’s total GDP. The economic value of assets within 500 m of Europe’s seas totals between EUR 500-1,000 billion.
Alongside other climate change impacts, sea level rise will increase the risk of flooding and erosion around the coasts, with significant consequences for the people, infrastructure, businesses and nature in these areas.
Among other potential impacts, sea level rise is projected to reduce the amount of available fresh water, as seawater pushes further into underground water tables. This is also likely to lead to much more saltwater intrusion into bodies of fresh water, affecting agriculture and the supply of drinking water.
It will also affect biodiversity in coastal habitats, and the natural services and goods they provide. Many wetlands areas will be lost, threatening unique bird and plant species, and removing the natural protection these areas provide against storm surges.