The European Union’s Copernicus climate monitoring service reported that last summer in Europe was the hottest in history. Predictions say this year is going to be far worse.
Intense heat and drought in Europe caused wildfires like these in southwestern France to also spread throughout Spain, Portugal, and Italy in July 2022. Photo: Marko Silberhand, via Twitter
According to the latest 2022 Global Climate Highlights report, last year Europe experienced its warmest summer since records began being kept 42 years ago, its second hottest fall since 2006, and a winter with temperatures 1° C above average. Only the spring was cooler compared to the average temperatures of Copernicus’ 1991-2020 reference period, a period most affected by the moderating cool temperatures associated with the La Niña oceanic impacts.
Overall, that pushed most of the European continent to its hottest year ever, with temperatures climbing to 1.6° C (2.9° F) higher overall on average compared to the previous year. For all of Europe, slightly cooler temperatures in the more northern and eastern sections of the continent produced overall temperatures which were only the second hottest overall for the year. 2020 still owns the overall crown as the hottest for all of Europe for an entire year, with temperatures at 0.3° C above the reference period..
Map illustrating where Europe was the hottest, second hottest and third hottest in history in 2022. Photo: The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S).
With those numbers in the record books, Copernicus scientists say that 2022 continued the pattern of the continent warming at a rate over twice the rate of the rest of the world in the last 30 years.
The coolness of early spring rapidly transitioned into one of the hottest late springs ever. That, along with atmospheric conditions which kept normal rainfall away, cleared the skies for more intense transmission and trapping of solar radiation at levels never before seen in Europe. That created conditions for the worst drought in Europe in modern times.
That drought manifested earliest in Spain and Portugal, when pressure conditions and high-altitude wind currents brought sand, dust, and intense heat up from Africa beginning around May 21. Temperatures in Spain rose within days to roughly 10° - 15° C (18° - 27° F) above seasonal norms. Within a week, records were set in Seville, which rose to 41° C (106° F) on May 20. Madrid, normally far more temperate than the Seville area, saw its temperatures climb to 36° C (96.8° F), and its northeastern neighbor of Zaragoza climbed to 38° C (100.4° F). On May 21, the city of Segovia logged a record “highest low” temperature of 20° C (68° F) for the night, for the first “tropical night”, a term for conditions where higher temperatures remain even at night, in that area’s history.
By early June, most of Spain and 97% of Portugal were embedded in extreme drought conditions which lasted through most of the rest of the year. Its effects on agricultural land were further exacerbated by the spreading of sand and dust, carried by the high-altitude air currents from Africa, across the entire Iberian Peninsula, as well as across Italy and France.
That pattern of heat and drought spread across much of the rest of Europe by summer’s end. It contributed to the evaporation of much of the water in Germany’s Rhine River, water levels plummeting in France’s Loire River Valley with serious damage to croplands there, drying out of Italy’s longest river, the Po, with the heat and lack of rain spreading their impact up through the United Kingdom by the end of July.
A Copernicus map summarizing the extreme temperatures Europe experienced June-August 2022. Photo: Copernicus ECMWF, via Twitter
In a report published on August 22 in conjunction with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC)’s Global Drought Observatory, researchers concluded that an estimated two-thirds of the continent was suffering from severe drought or worse at that time. They also declared that drought was the worst the region had seen “for at least 500 years”.
The heat and drought also gave rise to some of the worst wildfire seasons ever in Europe. As just one measure of how bad the wildfires were, measurements of carbon emission directly related to the wildfires were the highest in over 20 years in France, Germany, Spain, and Slovenia.
The Copernicus report also noted that 2022 was the fifth hottest ever for the entire planet, following after the highest average planetary temperatures ever recorded, in 2016. In order, the second through fourth warmest years on record were 2020, 2019, and 2017.
In commenting on the findings, Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) Deputy Director Samantha Burgess described the extended waves of high heat and little rain as a warning message to all about what must be done to slow the pace of global heating.
"2022 was yet another year of climate extremes across Europe and globally,” she said. “These events highlight that we are already experiencing the devastating consequences of our warming world. The latest 2022 Climate Highlights from C3S provide clear evidence that avoiding the worst consequences will require society to both urgently reduce carbon emissions and swiftly adapt to the changing climate.”
While 2022 turned out to be very warm overall for Europe, 2023 is already shaping up to have a high probability of beating the records just set.
Unlike last year, which began with more moderating temperatures in Europe, this year started with a major heat wave spreading across the EU. On New Year's Day, for example, Belarus, Denmark, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Poland were all experiencing temperatures which those regions rarely saw until spring.
Within that block then, the village of Korielów, Poland, hit a high of 19.0° C (66.2° F), a full 18°C higher than normal for that time of year. In the Czech Republic town of Javornik, temperatures jumped to 19.6° C (67.3° F) on the same day. That was a full 16.6° C above the 3° C value more typically experienced there at this time of year.
While the hot jump-start to the year is one reason why Europe is probably in for a considerably warmer 2023, another main reason is that the cyclic oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon known as La Niña, which is responsible for lowering ocean surface temperatures by roughly 3–5 °C (5.4 – 9 °F) from what they would normally be, will be gone this year. That will most likely help warm the entire planet and Europe well beyond what happened in 2022.