IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

C1. The impact of the European 2003 heatwave

C1.1 Scene-setting and overview

C1.1.1 The European heatwave of 2003 (Chapter 12, Section 12.6.1)

A severe heatwave over large parts of Europe in 2003 extended from June to mid-August, raising summer temperatures by 3 to 5°C in most of southern and central Europe (Figure C1.1). The warm anomalies in June lasted throughout the entire month (increases in monthly mean temperature of up to 6 to 7°C), but July was only slightly warmer than on average (+1 to +3°C), and the highest anomalies were reached between 1st and 13th August (+7°C) (Fink et al., 2004). Maximum temperatures of 35 to 40°C were repeatedly recorded and peak temperatures climbed well above 40°C (André et al., 2004; Beniston and Díaz, 2004).

Figure C1.1

Figure C1.1. Characteristics of the summer 2003 heatwave (adapted from Schär et al., 2004). (a) JJA temperature anomaly with respect to 1961 to 1990. (b) to (d) JJA temperatures for Switzerland observed during 1864 to 2003 (b), simulated using a regional climate model for the period 1961 to 1990 (c), and simulated for 2071 to 2100 under the A2 scenario using boundary data from the HadAM3H GCM (d). In panels (b) to (d): the black line shows the theoretical frequency distribution of mean summer temperature for the time-period considered, and the vertical blue and red bars show the mean summer temperature for individual years. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd. [Nature] (Schär et al., 2004), copyright 2004.

Average summer (June to August) temperatures were far above the long-term mean by up to five standard deviations (Figure C1.1), implying that this was an extremely unlikely event under current climatic conditions (Schär and Jendritzky, 2004). However, it is consistent with a combined increase in mean temperature and temperature variability (Meehl and Tebaldi, 2004; Pal et al., 2004; Schär et al., 2004) (Figure C1.1). As such, the 2003 heatwave resembles simulations by regional climate models of summer temperatures in the latter part of the 21st century under the A2 scenario (Beniston, 2004). Anthropogenic warming may therefore already have increased the risk of heatwaves such as the one experienced in 2003 (Stott et al., 2004).

The heatwave was accompanied by annual precipitation deficits up to 300 mm. This drought contributed to the estimated 30% reduction in gross primary production of terrestrial ecosystems over Europe (Ciais et al., 2005). This reduced agricultural production and increased production costs, generating estimated damages of more than ¤13 billion (Fink et al., 2004; see also C1.2.2). The hot and dry conditions led to many very large wildfires, in particular in Portugal (390,000 ha: Fink et al., 2004; see also C1.2.1). Many major rivers (e.g., the Po, Rhine, Loire and Danube) were at record low levels, resulting in disruption of inland navigation, irrigation and power-plant cooling (Beniston and Díaz, 2004; Zebisch et al., 2005; see also C1.2.3). The extreme glacier melt in the Alps prevented even lower river flows in the Danube and Rhine (Fink et al., 2004).

The excess deaths due to the extreme high temperatures during the period June to August may amount to 35,000 (Kosatsky, 2005); elderly people were among those most affected (WHO, 2003; Kovats and Jendritzky, 2006; see also C1.2.4). The heatwave in 2003 has led to the development of heat health-watch warning systems in several European countries including France (Pascal et al., 2006), Spain (Simón et al., 2005), Portugal (Nogueira, 2005), Italy (Michelozzi et al., 2005), the UK (NHS, 2006) and Hungary (Kosatsky and Menne, 2005).