Impact of floods, droughts and heatwaves on European cities will be worse than previously feared, say scientists
Late last month the banks of the River Seine burst and the Parisian waterway rose to almost three times its normal height, flooding several stations on Paris's busiest metro routes, as well as the ground floor of the Louvre and several parks.
Across Europe, climate change is already making such events increasingly common, with hotter heatwaves, drier droughts, and wetter winters an unpleasant reality for many city dwellers to contend with.
But new research by Newcastle University published today suggests the outlook for the future may be even worse than feared.
The researchers studied all 571 European cities to assess the likely impact of flooding, drought and heatwaves in the latter half of the century, under a climate model where average temperatures rise between 2.6C and 4.8C - the current widely accepted business-as-usual trajectory.
It reveals that all 571 cities would see a worsening of heatwaves, an increase in drought conditions, and a sharp rise in river flooding. Even in the most optimistic outcome, some 85 per cent of UK cities with a river, including London, are predicted to face increased river flooding, according to the research.
As well as major disruption for homeowners, the research suggests businesses in some of the world's busiest corporate centres will face severe challenges from the changing climatic conditions, from supply chain chaos to threats to the health and wellbeing of office employees.
"The research highlights the urgent need to design and adapt our cities to cope with these future conditions," commented Professor Richard Dawson, co-author and lead investigator of the study.
More than 75 per cent of the European Union lives in urban areas and in recent years deadly heatwaves and floods have torn through city and state capitals across the trading bloc with increasing frequency. But until now researchers have not calculated the likely impact climate change will have across all EU cities using the same data points, climate models, and methodologies. The researchers at Newcastle University argue such an approach is vital to ensure that billions of dollars of adaptation investments is allocated in a coherent way across the EU.
"Our analysis does not preclude the need for detailed climate change impact assessment for each city but it provides comparable information for different impacts and cities that can be used to prioritise national and European adaptation investments, and guide more detailed adaptation studies," the paper notes.
The study uses climate modelling to predict three possible futures - the low, medium and high impact scenarios, which describe the severity of outcomes that could be expected in a changed climate.
Under the high impact scenario, several European cities could see an 80 per cent increase in peak river flows. Stockholm and Rome would see the greatest increase in the number of heat-wave days, and Prague and Vienna will see the largest spike in maximum temperatures during a heatwave. Lisbon and Madrid are named the most vulnerable to drought, with cities in Southern Europe vulnerable to droughts up to 14 times more severe than today, the researchers warned.
"Although southern European regions are adapted to cope with droughts, this level of change could be beyond breaking point," said Dr Selma Guerreiro, lead author of the report.
But even under the less extreme low impact scenario, cities in Southern Europe such as Malaga and Almeria are set to experience droughts more than twice as severe as those in the latter half of the 21st century.
There are measures governments and businesses can take to prepare for more extreme weather events. For those at risk of flooding, a mixture of tools including barriers, green drainage sites and permeable infrastructure can all help lessen the impact of rising waters. Meanwhile water-saving technologies and rainwater collection can be installed to mitigate drought impacts, and homes and offices can be designed to better withstand heatwaves through better ventilation, use of through-drafts, and strategic planting of trees and shrubs.
But the researchers warn coping with the kind of temperature increases expected in some cities over the coming decades could present a major financial and logistical challenge. "In Southern Europe, adapting to some of the projected changes could only be achieved by a fundamental, and expensive, re-engineering of each city or water resource system, as significant adaptation to climate extremes has already been implemented and radical changes will be needed to achieve more," the paper notes. Central Europe has more "capacity and economic resource" to support such adaptation however, it adds.
The scientists hope their findings will help inform discussions at next month's Cities and Climate Change Science Conference, organised by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where experts will discuss how to prepare cities' population and infrastructure for climate change.
But businesses with supply chains and offices throughout Europe should also be paying serious attention to how resilient their urban operations will be to major shifts in weather patterns. From over-heating office blocks to flooded warehouses and drought-stricken manufacturing plants, the risks are manifold and spread throughout the supply chain. Some firms are already undertaking climate resilience planning. As property giant Landsec revealed recently, it has commissioned work to look at how it might respond in a scenario where London frequently has summers as hot as Dubai. But outside of a few sectors climate resilience planning is anything but widespread.
The Paris floods may not have been as bad as those seen in mid-2016, when the Seine rose 6.1 metres, or indeed in 1910, when an 8.6-metre rise transformed Parisian streets into canals. But it does act as a warning for firms that as the climate changes, companies could risk getting their fingers burned - or their feet very wet.
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