Sizzling Summer: Heat waves across Europe that mark one of the hottest summers in history

It is about what we are currently experiencing as one of the hottest summers to date and whether we as humans are responsible for turning our cities into, as described by Hannah Cloke a climate scientist at the University of Reading, into a “giant pizza oven”.

This post is not just about climate change, global warming and net-zero goals. It is about what we are currently experiencing as one of the hottest summers to date and whether we as humans are responsible for turning our cities into, as described by Hannah Cloke a climate scientist at the University of Reading, into a “giant pizza oven”.

As the summer of 2023 unfolds, Europe finds itself in the throes of an extraordinary weather event. Record temperatures are scorching the continent, leaving almost half of Europe grappling with severe drought. The sweltering heat wave has engulfed southern and eastern Europe, shattering previous records and raising alarming concerns about the impacts of such extreme weather.

The summer sun, normally a welcome companion for vacations and leisure, has transformed into a merciless oppressor, pushing thermometers to astonishing heights. As the heatwave sets in, regions like Italy are bracing for unprecedented highs, with some parts expecting temperatures to soar to a staggering 48°C. The consequences of such extraordinary heat are dire, raising fears of an increase in heat-related deaths, as witnessed when a road sign worker tragically collapsed and died near Milan as temperatures reached 40°C.

Greece, too, has been caught in the fiery grip of the relentless heatwave, experiencing scorching highs of over 40°C. The intense conditions have forced the closure of iconic landmarks like the Acropolis in Athens during the hottest parts of the day, aimed at safeguarding the well-being of visitors. Beyond the capital, raging wildfires have forced thousands of residents to evacuate resort towns, leaving destruction in their wake.

Spain's La Palma, in the northwest of the island, was also engulfed in flames as the heat soared, leading to further evacuations. Meanwhile, the tranquil mountain villages of the Swiss canton of Valais were not spared either, as blazes wreaked havoc in areas that were once deemed immune to such extreme weather events. These incidents are a clear indication that the entire continent is grappling with the consequences of the searing heatwave.

What is driving this unprecedented heat? Experts have identified the Charon anticyclone as the main culprit. This atmospheric phenomenon is pushing its way into Europe from North Africa, exacerbating the already intense heat. It marks the second "heat storm" in a week, following the Cerberus weather system that struck just days before. The combination of these weather patterns has created a heat dome over the southern half of Europe, locking warm air masses in place and causing stable and dry conditions.

As per the Copernicus report, the continent is currently experiencing the peak of this heatwave, with temperatures soaring above 45°C in regions like Greece, eastern Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy. These extreme conditions have disrupted daily life, putting immense strain on healthcare systems, infrastructure, and agriculture.

Unfortunately, Europe is not alone in experiencing such scorching temperatures. Reports show that this heatwave also impacted the United States, North Africa, and China. Alarmingly, the planet has registered its hottest day since record-keeping began, a worrying trend that reinforces the need to address climate change and its profound effects on the world's weather patterns.

As scientists have repeatedly warned, climate change, largely driven by the burning of fossil fuels, plays a significant role in these extreme weather events. The consequences of global warming are no longer theoretical; they are evident in the devastating heatwaves, raging wildfires, and catastrophic droughts that have become all too common across the globe.

The scorching heat waves that have gripped Europe during the summer of 2023 are not the result of a single factor but rather a combination of extreme phenomena with the profound impact of climate change. According to Florian Pappenberger, Director of Forecasts at ECMWF, the current extreme heat is primarily driven by a slow-moving anticyclone, a high-pressure system, which dominates the upper atmosphere over southern Europe. This anticyclone causes subsidence, leading to the compression and warming of the descending air mass. Additionally, the Atlantic Ocean heatwave reported in early July has played a role, with warmer-than-average ocean temperatures affecting atmospheric circulation patterns and warming the air masses above them.

However, the influence of climate change on these events cannot be ignored. Greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, are causing a surge in global temperatures, making heat waves more frequent, severe, and dangerous. Akshay Deoras, a research scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, confirms that climate change is increasing the intensity, frequency, and duration of heat waves across the globe.

In fact, the extreme temperatures in Europe coincided with the hottest June on record, a concerning trend identified by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Furthermore, the UN agency has warned that there is a high probability of the El Niño weather phenomenon continuing until the year's end, which could potentially push global temperatures to new records, intensifying heat waves and storms.

Source: ESA - Europe braces for sweltering July

Image from The European Space Agency (ESA): Data from the Copernicus Sentinel-3 mission’s radiometer instrument that shows the land surface temperature across Europe and parts of northern Africa in the morning of 10 July 2023.

The summer of 2023 has brought unprecedented heat and extreme weather conditions to Europe, leaving its mark on both the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants. Dr Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, emphasizes that these heatwaves are unprecedented for humanity, and we must act rapidly to secure a livable future for generations to come. With temperatures soaring to record-breaking levels and drought conditions persisting, it is clear that urgent action is needed to combat climate change and its disastrous impact on our world. The time for meaningful action is now, as we stand at a critical crossroads in our fight to preserve the planet for future generations.