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Record 2022 summer heat and glacier melt in Europe: study

April 20, 2023

An EU climate report has logged the most Alpine glacier retreat of any year and the continent's hottest summer on record in 2022. It also said the world's hottest year on record, 2016, might soon be eclipsed.

The Sulzenau lake in the Alps, forming out of Austria's largest glacier of the same name as it melts, pictured in September 2022.
Glacier retreat was at its fastest on record amid an unusually hot European summerImage: Bernd Juergens/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

More glacier ice melted in Europe's Alps last year than ever previously recorded amid the hottest European summer on record, the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service reported on Thursday. 

The glaciers lost more than 5 cubic kilometers of ice (1.2 cubic miles), the organization said. It attributed this to low levels of snowfall the previous winter and then high summer temperatures and a prolonged melting period. Authorities in Austria recently reported the same phenomenon on the local level. 

The report also found that 2022's summer, marked by drought and heat waves, was the hottest on record in Europe, 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the recent average from between 1991 and 2020. It said Europe had been warming at double the global average in recent years.

Western European temperatures drove the trend: for countries including the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain, 2022's average temperatures were the highest on record. For Germany, Belgium, Austria and others, they were the second highest.

A cargo ship transporting coal is seen on the Rhine river and thyssenkrupp Steel Europe is in the background in Duisburg Germany on August 13, 2022.
Freight ships, for instance coal barges on the Rhine river, were forced to run laden with almost no cargo in late summer as water levels dipped sharplyImage: Ying Tang/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Last eight years the eight warmest on record

The report also noted unusually high temperatures at both poles in 2022. 

"During the latter half of February, Antarctic daily sea ice extent reached a new record low, bypassing the previous minimum reached in 2017," it said.

Meanwhile, to the north in September, temperatures were 8 degrees Celsius higher than usual over Greenland.

Overall, Copernicus classified 2022 as the fifth-warmest year, more than 1 degree Celsius higher than the pre-industrial era proxy figure, with the last eight years the eight warmest years on record.

"The report highlights alarming changes to our climate, including the hottest summer ever recorded in Europe, marked by unprecedented marine heat waves in the Mediterranean Sea and record-breaking temperatures in Greenland," said Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service. 

Edge of the dry Garonne River at the level of the Pont des Catalans in Toulouse. France, Toulouse March 4, 2023.
Early indications suggest little chance of respite in 2023; authorities in France are warning of a drier summer than the last Image: Huchot-Boissier Patricia/abaca/picture alliance

New hottest year ever in 2023 or 2024? 

The monitoring group, based in Reading in the UK, said that it was also possible that the world's hottest year on record, 2016, might soon lose its crown if the El Nino weather phenomenon were to emerge for the first time in years.

El Nino typically contributes to slightly elevated temperatures and reduced precipitation. The last few years' hot weather has taken place despite sister phenomenon El Nina contributing to cooler and wetter conditions.

"El Nino is normally associated with record-breaking temperatures at the global level. Whether this will happen in 2023 or 2024 is not yet known, but it is, I think, more likely than not," Buontempo said.

Signs of a winter drought in 2023 in Europe are already numerous, particularly in Spain and in France where authorities are warning of a tougher summer than last year. 

Good year for EU solar power, less so for wind

Copernicus' Atmosphere Monitoring Service also reported regional record greenhouse gas emissions, specifically from wildfires caused by the hot summer. 

"France, Spain, Germany and Slovenia also experienced their highest summer wildfire emissions for at least the last 20 years, with southwestern Europe seeing some of the largest fires on record in Europe," the report said. 

The study also devoted some time to renewable power generation figures and the climate's effect on them, with Copernicus' deputy director Samantha Burgess saying that, "understanding and responding to the changes and variability in renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, are critical to support the energy transition to net zero." 

Because of record levels of solar radiation in much of Europe, solar power generation was slightly above average potential, part of a continuing trend. By the same token, wind power potential availability was slightly below average overall.

A totally dried-out pier on what's normally a lake in Spain, complete with a pedalo boat parked on the parched earth at what's normally a jetty.
Spain is also reporting drought conditions early in spring 2023Image: Emilio Morenatti/AP/dpa/picture alliance

msh/nm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)