Bad News for Storm-Battered Europe: There’s More Extreme Weather on the Horizon

As northern Europe recovers from a major Atlantic storm, a new report suggests more extreme weather could be the norm.

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GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

Massive storms like the one that hit Britain this week could become more common

Europe began this week bracing itself against one of the most powerful storms in years. Gusts of 99 m.p.h. trailed across parts of southern Britain before heading toward mainland northwestern Europe, causing havoc in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. At least 13 people have been reported dead and hundreds of thousands have been left without power or stranded on planes, trains and ferries.

The bad news for Europe as it begins the cleanup operation and assesses the financial cost of the damage (Britain’s Great Storm of 1987, which left 18 dead and felled 15 million trees, caused $3.5 billion in damage in today’s terms) is that there’s likely more extreme weather to come.

A new report on extreme-weather events by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the European national science academies suggests that “some of the extreme weather phenomena associated with climate change are increasing in frequency and intensity within Europe.” They also say that “human activity has been the cause of more profound and rapid change” for the earth’s climate.

Using computer modeling, the authors have found a “consensus” on “the likely future pattern of extreme weather events in Europe.” This includes more frequent and intense heat waves, as well as a reduction of rainfall and average temperatures for southern Europe.

For northern Europe, the authors say that “high intensity and extreme precipitation are expected to become more frequent within the next 70 years” and that “climate model simulations indicate an increase in windstorm risk over Northwestern Europe, leading to higher storm damage when there is no adaptation.”

The prediction that Europe will be facing extreme weather as a result of human-caused global warming is not new — the European Environment Agency issued a warning back in June predicting a rise in extreme weather as floods wreaked death and destruction across the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. And the problem is of course not exclusive to Europe: an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 2012 suggested that by 2100, the financial cost of extreme-weather conditions — which it found with “high confidence” was exacerbated by climate change — could be some $20 trillion.

But this latest report from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the European academies is aimed at helping policymakers focus on adapting to climate change, given that “it’s now widely recognized” that the international community has failed to agree on action to limit it, the authors say. Adaptation has been one of the key messages for climate-change policy wonks in recent years, especially in the wake of extreme-weather events such as Superstorm Sandy and Australia’s intense bushfires this month. And it’s also important to remember that population and economic growth tend to put more people and property in harm’s way for bad weather, and that as we grow more dependent on telecommunications and a secure electrical grid, the more crippled society becomes when a storm causes us to lose power.

There’s there’s another upshot of adopting adaptation as a strategy, though: David Mandelbaum, a U.S.-based environmental lawyer, suggests that it conveniently allows us to sidestep the ideological debate over what caused climate change and lets us get on with dealing the changes. For Europeans dithering over ways to deal with future freak weather events linked to climate change, it may the best argument yet.

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