Europe’s Changing Climate Viewed From Orbit Shows Rising Danger

Climate change whipsawed through Europe last year, alternately baking locked-up economies beneath record heat before inundating them with unprecedented floods, underscoring the rising levels of uncertainty faced by the continent’s 500 million people as the planet warms.

Last year was one of the three warmest ever recorded in Europe and caps a six-year span when it’s never been hotter, according to scientists at the Copernicus Climate Change Service. While pandemic-induced economic lockdowns reduced European Union emissions by almost a tenth, they didn’t prevent an overall increase in manmade greenhouse gases. The far North is feeling the changes most acutely.

“The region that stands out is the Arctic,” said Freja Vamborg, one of the scientists who wrote the annual European State of the Climate report published Thursday. “The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, as is Europe.”

Frozen Arctic ecosystems are beginning to thaw. Last year the Siberian Arctic’s temperatures were 4.3 degrees Celsius (7.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above historical averages, resulting in melting ice and permafrost. Megafires consuming ancient boreal forests could be seen from space.

“Some of this process is irreversible,” said Mark Parrington, a Copernicus scientist who studies fire emissions. “Those fires released carbon that has been captured for thousands of years into the atmosphere.”

The rate of emissions is closely tracked at Copernicus, which uses billions of measurements from satellites, ships, aircraft and weather stations around the world to conduct monthly and seasonal forecasts. Stopping the accumulation of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere is key to limiting global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and has become a key feature of Europe’s Green Deal and pandemic recovery program.

“Achieving a climate neutral economy requires the full mobilization of society, governments and industry,” the European Commission’s Matthias Petschke said in a statement.

Copernicus estimates global emissions fell 8% last year due to economic contractions and would have declined further if people working at home didn’t rely on burning natural gas and oil to keep warm, according to Vincent-Henri Peuch, who heads the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

Abnormally high temperatures and extreme weather have increased the burden on some of Europe’s most important economic sectors. Farmers throughout France and parts of central Europe battled consecutive years of drier-than-average conditions that reduced crop yields. Energy traders struggled to identify new weather patterns, resulting in billions of euros in lost revenues.

Those periods of hot and dry weather were interspersed with deluges three times the monthly averages that caused devastating floods in some regions. Storm Alex in October dumped record one-day rainfall across the U.K., northwestern France and the southern Alps. A rare tropical cyclone called Medicane Lanos swept through Greece in September, killing four people and causing some $100 million in damages.

The warming climate is also baking in potentially more destructive changes to the Earth’s systems. Melting glaciers and ice shelves are causing sea levels to rise and threatening coastal economies across the globe. Oceans are drawing closer to some European coastlines at a rate of almost a half centimeter a year, prompting the bloc to launch a new satellite in 2020 that will keep track of the encroaching waters.

“It is more important than ever that we use the available information to act, to mitigate and adapt to climate change and accelerate our efforts to reduce future risks,” said Copernicus Director Carlo Buontempo.

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