Extreme weather events pose an increased risk to nature, buildings, infrastructure, and human health. These events, expected to increase in frequency and intensity because of climate change, are already causing substantial damage and loss. We must adapt and prepare for life in a changing climate.

The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record globally. Over 460.000 hectars of forest have been destroyed by wildfires this year.

Over the past decades, Europe has been experiencing frequent and severe weather and climate-related natural hazards like droughts, forest fires, heatwaves, storms and heavy rain. Climate change will make these events even more intense and more frequent.

Extreme temperatures do not only impact the health of vulnerable groups but also cause sleep disturbance for everyone. Rivers and lakes are drying up, impacting all life dependent on them. Soils are also getting drier, increasing fire risks and reducing agricultural productivity.

Other parts of Europe are experiencing intense downpours, sometimes flooding buildings and damaging property and infrastructure within a matter of minutes. Coastal zones will be at risk of more frequent storm surges, also resulting in flooded buldings or agricultural lands. Wind speeds are reaching levels never seen Europe before, causing accidents and serious damages to property. Other parts are seeing severe cold spells.

These events are unfortunate reminders of the changing and volatile climate that Europe needs to adapt and prepare for, while taking action to drastically reduce carbon emissions in order to slow down and limit climate change.

In the past four decades, extreme weather has been responsible for:

  • Half a trillion euros in economic losses.
  • 85,000 to 145,000 human fatalities.
  • Heatwaves alone have caused tens of thousands of premature deaths in Europe since 2000. Their length, frequency and intensity are expected to increase, leading to a substantial increase in mortality, especially in vulnerable populations, unless adaptation measures are taken.
  • Cold-related mortality is projected to decrease owing to better social, economic and housing conditions in many European countries. There is inconclusive evidence about whether or not the projected warming will lead to a further substantial decrease in cold-related mortality.

Different regions in Europe will experience different changes in the patterns of extreme weather:

  • In northern Europe, annual precipitation and heavy rainfall are likely to increase, with droughts becoming less frequent.
  • Central Europe is likely to experience lower summer rainfall, but also harsher weather extremes (heavy precipitation, river floods, droughts and fire hazards), with mixed changes in annual precipitation and aridity.
  • In southern Europe, annual precipitation and summer rainfall are projected to decrease, whereas aridity, droughts and fire hazards are all likely to increase.

Climate-related extreme weather events vary by region. This means that one-size-fits-all responses are no match for the growing threat that these hazards pose to property and lives. 

The EU’s adaptation strategy aims to ensure that Europe is better prepared to manage the risks and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Closing the climate protection gap by increasing insurance coverage can be a crucial tool for improving recovery, reducing vulnerability, and promoting resilience. EU Member States are also responding with national adaptation policies, including national, regional and sectoral climate risk assessments.

Preparedness activities are also in place at the EU level to help Member States prepare for extreme weather events. Early warning systems are essential parts of these activities. The European Civil Protection Pool helps advance European cooperation concerning warning systems for a faster, well-coordinated and effective response to weather-related disasters and natural hazards. 

Heatwaves, droughts, other extreme weather events increasingly influencing adaptation policies

Climate health risks posed by floods, droughts and water quality

Climate change is worsening floods, droughts and is reducing water quality, posing an increasing threat to our health, according to an EEA report . Fast-tracking implementation and better coordination of efforts by governments, water authorities and healthcare providers are urgently needed to prevent and reduce health impacts.

Between 1980 and 2022, 5,582 flood-related deaths and 702 wildfire-related deaths were recorded across 32 European countries. Already today, one in eight Europeans lives in areas potentially prone to river floods and around 30% of people in southern Europe face permanent water stress. Climate change will further increase exposure of people to weather extremes with serious health consequences.

Black and white picture of a man riding a bicycle on a snow-covered road with a car visible in the snow-blurred background.

Extreme weather: what to expect?

Weather-related hazards facing the EU in the coming decades can be groupes as follow:  

  • Hot and cold: Mean air temperature will rise steadily across Europe.
  • Wet and dry: Changes in rainfall are expected to differ considerably throughout Europe, with heavy rain in the North, more extremes in Central Europe, and a greater risk of drought in the South 
  • Wind: Storm intensity is projected to increase across Europe, but changes in the frequency are projected to differ across regions. 
  • Snow and ice: Snowfall is projected to decrease in central and southern Europe, whereas mixed changes are anticipated for northern Europe. 
  • Coastal regions: Sea levels will rise in all areas except the northern Baltic Sea.  
  • Open ocean: Sea surface temperature is projected to increase in all European seas, with associated increases in marine heatwaves. Europe’s seas are also expected to become more acidic.  

Heatwaves: A matter of life and death for vulnerable people

Heatwaves and extreme cold spells have a massive effect on public health. Extreme heat is closely linked to higher death rates and hospital admissions and generally affects the well-being and productivity of workers.

The most significant effect of heat is on the elderly, but in some cities, younger adults have also been affected. Older people are more vulnerable to the impacts of heatwaves due to poorer physical health and understanding of health risks. 

In addition to the elderly, those with chronic diseases and persons of lower socio-economic status also have a heightened risk of dying from heatwaves.

Picture of the back of an old couple holding hands and walking down a pedestrian road with buildings on either side and a café at the background on the right.

More information