Europe warming at twice rate of other continents as heat stress severely impacts public health – climate report

2023 weather and climate-related economic losses in Europe estimated at more than €13.4 billion

Europe is the fastest warming Continent, with temperatures continuing to rise at around twice the global average rate and impacting all countries, according to the European Union’s (EU) climate service Copernicus and the World Meteorological Association (WMO).

Their latest report on Europe’s climate, issued today, finds the Continent experienced widespread flooding and severe heatwaves in 2023, in a series of extreme weather events made worse by climate change.

The three warmest years on record for Europe have all occurred since 2020, and the 10 warmest since 2007. The number of adverse health impacts related to extreme weather and climate events is rising sharply year-on-year, it warns.

“In 2023, Europe witnessed the largest wildfire ever recorded, one of the wettest years, severe marine heatwaves and widespread devastating flooding. Temperatures continue to increase, making our data ever more vital in preparing for the impacts of climate change,” Copernicus Climate Change Service director Carlo Buontempo said.


Last year was the joint warmest or second warmest year on record – depending on the data set – with temperatures in Europe above average for 11 months, including the warmest September on record, it finds – a pattern matched in Ireland.

Europe is seeing an increasing number of days with at least “strong heat stress”, it says, and in 2023 experienced a record number of days with “extreme heat stress”. Heat-related mortality has increased by around 30 per cent in the past 20 years and heat-related deaths increased by an estimate 94 per cent of the European regions monitored, it concludes.


Evidence shows generally good awareness of the climate threat and health impacts “but a low-risk perception of heat by the public, vulnerable groups and some healthcare providers”.

In June, the Atlantic Ocean west of Ireland and around the United Kingdom was impacted by a marine heatwave that was classified as “extreme” and in some areas “beyond extreme”, with sea surface temperatures as much as five degrees above average, it says. Average sea surface temperature for the ocean across Europe was the highest on record.

Europe saw around seven per cent more precipitation than average last year. European river flows were the highest on record for December, with “exceptionally high” flows in almost a quarter of the river network, it adds. During 2023, one third of the network saw river flows exceeding the “high” flood threshold; 16 per cent exceeding the “severe” flood threshold.

The report shows a record proportion of electricity generation by renewables in Europe last year, at 43 per cent. Increased storm activity through October to December resulted in above-average potential for wind power, particularly in the north west Atlantic, including Ireland. Solar power was below average in northwestern and central Europe, and above average in southern Europe.

Much of Europe experienced fewer days with snow than average, particularly across central Europe and the Alps during winter and spring. The Alps saw exceptional glacier ice loss, linked to below-average winter snow accumulation and strong summer melt due to heatwaves. Over 2022 and 2023, glaciers in the Alps have lost around 10 per cent of their remaining volume.

WMO secretary general Celeste Saulo said the cost of climate action may seem high but the cost of inaction is much higher. “As this report shows, we need to leverage science to provide solutions for the good of society.”

Mauro Facchini, head of the European Commission’s earth observation unit, said robust environmental information, underpinned by Copernicus findings “is revealing significant changes across our planet. The data presented are alarming, but this research is also a vital tool in our aims to transition towards sustainable energy, reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, and become the first climate-neutral Continent by 2050″.

It highlights preliminary estimates for 2023 indicating 63 lives were unfortunately lost due to storms, 44 to floods and 44 to wildfires. Weather- and climate-related economic losses in 2023 are estimated at more than €13.4 billion.

Flooding affected an estimated 1.6 million people in Europe, causing 81 per cent of the year’s economic losses due to climate impacts. Summer 2023 was not the warmest on record, but saw conditions that were, at times, extreme with contrasts in temperature and precipitation across the Continent and from one month to the next. The “extended summer” (June to September) saw a mix of heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and flooding.

Dr Friederike Otto of the Grantham Institute in Imperial College London, said the report clearly shows climate change is already making life much more dangerous, more expensive, and more unpredictable for millions of people in Europe.

“Heatwaves are ‘silent killers’. Unlike fires or floods, the effects of heatwaves aren’t visible, and heat-related death statistics aren’t routinely recorded. The report doesn’t give estimates for heat-related deaths. However, in 2022, 70,000 deaths in Europe were linked to high temperatures,” she added.

“Given 2023 was hotter than 2022, it’s likely the number of European heat-related deaths last year exceeds 70,000. For many of these deaths, the additional heat caused by fossil fuel emissions would have been the difference between life and death. If humans continue to burn oil, gas and coal, heatwaves will continue to get hotter and vulnerable people will continue to die.”

The report underscores “the profound impact of heat stress on public health”. It is a measure of how the human body responds to high temperatures combined with other factors such as humidity and wind speed. Prolonged exposure to heat stress can exacerbate existing health conditions and increase risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke, particularly among vulnerable populations.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times