European Heatwave 2003

The heatwave was unanticipated, chaotic and unexpected. Heatwaves can be seen as shorter versions of droughts. The heatwave was considered an extreme weather event . It was caused by unusually high pressure conditions. What makes this case study interesting is that the question lies was this a first taster of climate change of was it part of nature’s cycle?

Location: The continent of Europe

Date: August 2003

What happened in a nutshell?

Europe experienced a prolonged summer anticyclone. The hot and dry conditions caused problems with levels of water, crop production and the health of the young and elderly.

Human causes…

  1. The highest temperatures were seen in the urban heat islands; they are where the most carbon is emitted and overland runoff is experienced. These factors help conditions become more severe.
  2. It is important to recognise that though humans didn’t contribute much to the causes they sure made things a lot worse with global warming and much more.

Physical causes…

  1.  The tropical continental air mass brought in an anticyclone. [In a summer anticyclone we experience clear settled conditions which can lead to long sunny days and warm temperatures.Weather is normally dry, but occasionally very hot temperatures can lead to thunderstorms.] Pressure became as high as 1030mb.
  2. In an urban heat island the area does not cool through evopotranspiration.
  3. The prolonged time period was created by a blocking high. The high pressure stuck over the UK and the normal tracks of depressions had changed. This meant that some other parts of the world experienced more depressions than usual.

Social impacts

  1. Human death toll exceeded 30,000 due to aliments such as dehydration.
  2. Nuclear plants had to shut down as cooling process was impossible because the water levels were extremely low.
  3.  Public water supplies were at dangerously low levels.
  4. Hydro-electric power became near to impossible to use.
  5. The London Eye was forced to close one day as it became dangerously hot within cabins.

Economic impacts  

  1. Farmer’s livestock and crops died and it cost them nearly £7 million.
  2.  As a result food prices rose which meant the poor were eating and drinking less.
  3. Demand for electricity increased because of increased use of air conditioning systems and other cooling devices.
  4.  Tourism in parts of UK increased helping the local economy.
  5.  Transport/infrastructure suffered e.g. trains derailed and road surfaces melted therefore the government had to increase spending in this section.

Environmental impacts 

  1. Fires broke out in forests in Europe destroying habitats and important vegetation. Furthermore, it had cost Portugal (which was affected worst by this) 1 billion euros.
  2. Total glacier volume loss in the alps was 5-10% in 2003.
  3. The Danube river in Serbia was at its lowest level ever in about 100 years.


Short-term responses

  1. Increase the number of medical staff on site to treat illnesses caused by the hot weather.
  2.  Extra ice cream vans were  brought in to help the tourists to cool off in the hot weather.
  3. Extinguish forest fires and evacuate people who live nearby to protect people.
  4. Encourage people to visit elderly friends, relatives and neighbours to check they are coping in the heatwave.
  5.  Give people advice on the tv/newspaper on the best ways to cope with effects of the heat.
  6. Bring in extra emergency refrigeration units to store large numbers of dead bodies.
  7. There was a temporary ban on hose pipe usages throughout Europe.
  8. If temperatures reached over 30° then trains and other motor vehicles would have to comply with further speed restrictions.
  9. Some people changed there working hours to make their job more bearable so for example garbage collectors worked earlier in the morning when temperatures were lower rather than in the afternoon.

Long term responses

  1. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to climate change.
  2. Install air-conditioning and alert-call systems in homes for the elderly.
  3. Build desalination plants to help increase public water supplies.
  4. Improve seasonal weather forecasts and climate predictions to help plan for future summer hot weather.

Worst affected country:

France; The French incurred the biggest temperature increase. Some places in France saw  an over 9 degrees rise whereas in the UK- maximum it was a 6 degrees rise.

For more information check out:

Can a winter anticyclone be classed as an extreme weather event?

What are the weather conditions shown in this map?

Firstly there is an winter anticyclone. The pressure is over 1000 (high pressure) and winds are blowing in a clockwise direction. There is also quite a large gap between isobars showing winds aren’t that high which fits in the model of a winter anticyclone. There will be hardly any clouds allowing the sun to shine through although the temperatures will still be low as there is a lack of clouds which allows heat to escape back into the atmosphere. We can see this through the symbols on the chart. The winter anticyclone has built up through cold and dry condition in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. The Polar Continental air mass is the main one associated with this weather system.

There is also a cold front passing through North East England and Scotland. Traditionally, in anticyclonic conditions we do not see fronts forming but it just goes to show that real weather is much more complex than what the textbook says. In this front the cold air advances and force the warm air to rise sharply.

When the warm air rises quickly is condenses and causes a short rapid snap of heavy rain. Hence around the front we see symbols of rain.

What is an extreme weather event?

It is severe or unusual weather conditions e.g. hurricanes which cause severe impacts on the environment, people and economy.

So what are the risks with this condition?

  1. Firstly, temperatures can become extremely low bringing many health risks like hypothermia especially to children and the elderly.
  2. Many who suffer with breathing difficulties will probably have many problems. This is because first off the air is cold and dry and secondly there is a high risk or fog which is known to making breathing difficulties bigger.
  3. Fog is difficult to forecast in these situations do to cloud cover or the lack of it! This makes forecasting difficult and when extreme anticyclonic conditions are arising it is hard to forecast hence hard to act appropriately.
  4. Some extreme situations see heavy snow of ice falling. As we have seen in the last too months this can cause severe disruption. Many lives are lost, over a million people are not able to reach work and livestock are dying as they are not able to cope with these cold conditions.


Can a summer anticyclone be classed as an extreme weather event?

What are the weather conditions shown in this synoptic chart?

It is showing a summer anticyclone. We can see high pressure (pressure over 1000) and clockwise winds. Typically in this conditions the air mass is Tropical Continental – warm and dry winds from places like the Sahara. We can see no rain as in summer anticyclones we do not see much cloud formation as it is high pressure.There are light winds over England and Eastern Europe – we can see this through the knots and gap between the isobars.  However Scotland an Ireland have higher wind speeds and more cloud cover.

There is also an occluded front passing over this part of the UK – traditionally we do not see front in anticyclonic conditions- but just goes to show the weather isn’t as simple as the textbook suggests. The occluded front occluded front occurs where a warm front and a cold front meets. the means the amount of warm air that rises is larger than just a warm or cold front. This means that in that area there will be a down pour of torrential rain possibly.


What is an extreme weather event?

It is severe or unusual weather conditions e.g. hurricanes which causes severe impacts on the environment, economy and people.

So what are the risks associated with this weather system?

  1. As temperatures can become extremely high we will see many health risks of dehydration etc and this worst affects the elderly and the young.
  2. Water levels can become extremely low which means hydroelectric power and thermal power station may have to shut as the cooling process becomes impossible.This is dangerous because it is in a time when people will need Air conditioning in their homes.
  3. Once again there is a high risk of fog, which is hard to forecast, and this may cause breathing difficulties. Especially because pollution can get caught in sinking air causing smog – which is terrible for asthmatics.
  4. In extreme event ‘blocking highs’ can occur where the normal pattern of weather is diverted and we are stuck with the anticyclone for long periods of time.