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Early warning for extreme weather planned as Europe temps accelerate

The U.N. proposed an early warning system against increasingly extreme and dangerous weather as the Earth warms, supercharged by greenhouse gases that raised temps in Europe more than twice the global average over 30 years.

Gorner Glacier, by the Monte Rosa massif above Zermatt, Switzerland, is one of the most studied in the world
Gorner Glacier, by the Monte Rosa massif above Zermatt, Switzerland, is one of the most studied in the world and has been retreating drastically since the end of the 19th century (AN/J. Heilprin)

While the Earth grows warmer, supercharged by greenhouse-gas emissions, nowhere is it getting hotter faster than in Europe.

The impacts of climate change are becoming more dramatic:

Glaciers are shrinking, wildfires are raging, floods are more frequent and heatwaves are the norm. In Greenland the ice sheet is melting, contributing to rising sea levels.

Last year, high impact weather and climate events across Europe led to hundreds of fatalities, directly affected more than half a million people and caused economic damages exceeding US$50 billion. The mostly deadly extreme climate events come as heatwaves, particularly in Western and Southern countries.

As global leaders gathered this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the COP27 climate summit, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres offered a grim assessment of where the world is headed: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

With greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere and global temperatures rising, Guterres said the Earth is fast approaching a tipping point that will “make climate chaos irreversible.”

With half of humanity "already in the danger zone,” he called for "every person on Earth to be protected by early warning systems within five years, with the priority to support the most vulnerable first."

The Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization found that over the past 30 years in Europe, temperatures increased at more than twice the global average, the highest of any continent in the world.

During the period from 1991 to 2021, WMO said, temperatures across Europe warmed at an average rate of about +0.5 degrees Celsius per decade. As a result, Alpine glaciers lost 30 meters in ice thickness from 1997 to 2021. In the summer of 2021, Greenland experienced the first-ever recorded rainfall (rather than snow) at Summit station, its highest point.

“Europe presents a live picture of a warming world and reminds us that even well prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

Global early warning

Many countries in Europe have cut greenhouse gas emissions, and in the European Union emissions decreased 31% between 1990 and 2020, with a net 55% reduction target for 2030.

Europe is also one of the most advanced regions in cross-border cooperation in climate change adaptation and is one of the world leaders in providing effective early warning systems, with some 75% of people protected. Heat-health action plans have saved many lives.

On a global scale, a WMO plan presented Monday to the COP27 summit in Egypt estimated it would cost about 50 cents per person per year for the next five years to reach everyone on Earth with early warnings against extreme and dangerous weather.

Such warning systems are considered the “low-hanging fruit” for climate change adaptation because they are a relatively cheap and effective way of protecting people and property from hazards, such as storms, floods, heatwaves and tsunamis.

“Early warnings save lives and provide vast economic benefits.” Taalas said. “Just 24 hours' notice of an impending hazardous event can cut the ensuing damage by 30%.”

The plan presented to the summit calls for initial new targeted investments between 2023 and 2027 of US$3.1 billion, which WMO says “would be dwarfed by the benefits.”