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Europe's deadly heat waves linked to melting sea ice

A new study from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) is redefining our understanding of weather patterns. As a result, experts may now be able to predict summer heat waves in Europe from months to years in advance. 

The scientists have discovered a direct link between the influx of meltwater in the North Atlantic and the occurrence of heat waves across Europe during the summer months. 

Freshwater in the North Atlantic and summer heat

The research underscores a significant breakthrough in climatology, tracing how increased levels of freshwater in the North Atlantic can instigate a domino effect, culminating in hotter and drier summers across Europe. 

“While the UK and northern Europe experienced unusually cool and wet weather in summer 2023, Greenland experienced an unusually warm summer, leading to increased freshwater input into the North Atlantic,” said study lead author and NOC research scientist Marilena Oltmanns. “Based on the identified chain of events, we expect that the ocean-atmosphere conditions will be favorable for an unusually warm and dry summer over southern Europe this year.”

“Depending on the pathway of the freshwater in the North Atlantic, we are also expecting a warm and dry summer in northern Europe within the next 5 years. We will be able to estimate the exact year of the warm and dry summer in northern Europe more closely in the winter before it occurs.”

Melting ice will intensify heat waves

As burgeoning sources of freshwater, melting sea ice and glacial ice are altering the traditional patterns of ocean circulation. This phenomenon has a profound influence on global climate dynamics

The research suggests that as ice melt continues to intensify, so too will the frequency and severity of heat waves and droughts across Europe. This phenomenon will further exacerbate the challenges posed by global warming.

“The melting of land and sea ice are expected to increase over the coming decades, resulting in an enhanced freshwater discharge into the North Atlantic. With stronger freshwater anomalies, our results indicate an increase in the risk of warm, dry European summers and of heat waves and droughts accordingly,” wrote the study authors. 

In light of these discoveries, Oltmanns emphasizes the paramount importance of ocean observations in refining climate models. 

“Our findings demonstrate the importance of ocean observations, to ensure climate models capture all physical processes required to make accurate weather predictions,” said Oltmanns.

“This study is a step forward for improving models, which will enable industries and stakeholders to plan ahead for specific weather conditions, such as adapting agricultural methods to be more resilient, predicting fuel usage, and bracing for flooding events.”

Heat waves in Europe 

Europe’s heat waves have become more frequent, intense, and prolonged over recent years, which can be primarily attributed to climate change. These extreme weather events have had significant impacts on public health, agriculture, and ecosystems across the continent. 

Public health

As temperatures soar to record highs, many countries face challenges such as increased mortality rates, particularly among vulnerable populations like older adults, and strained healthcare systems due to heat-related illnesses. 


Agriculture suffers as well, with crops and livestock experiencing stress from the heat, leading to reduced yields and economic losses. Wildfires become more common and destructive, fueled by dry conditions and high temperatures, causing widespread damage to forests and property. 

Water scarcity 

Additionally, heat waves exacerbate water scarcity issues, affecting both human consumption and natural habitats. 

Governments and communities have been working to adapt to these changes through various measures, including the development of heat action plans, increased green spaces in urban areas to combat the heat island effect, and initiatives to improve water conservation and management.

Melting sea ice

Melting sea ice and glaciers have significant impacts on the Earth’s climate, ecosystems, and human populations. Glaciers, large masses of ice formed on land, and sea ice, which forms and melts in the ocean, are both experiencing rapid changes due to global warming. 

Various consequences 

While the melting of sea ice does not directly contribute to sea level rise – much like ice cubes melting in a glass of water don’t overflow the glass – the disappearance of sea ice leads to a range of other devastating consequences. These include changes in weather patterns worldwide and the loss of habitat for species that depend on ice, such as polar bears and walruses​​.

Arctic sea ice

The loss of Arctic ice, in particular, affects everyone on the planet. The Arctic acts as the Earth’s refrigerator, reflecting heat back into space and helping to keep global temperatures in check. 

However, we’re losing Arctic sea ice at a rate of almost 13% per decade, significantly impacting global weather patterns, coastal communities, food production, shipping routes, wildlife, and the release of methane from thawing permafrost. This release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, contributes further to global warming, creating a feedback loop that exacerbates climate change​​.

Sea level rise

Global sea level rise is a direct consequence of the warming planet. As land ice melts and adds water to the ocean, and as ocean water warms and expands, sea levels rise. This has been happening at an accelerating rate, with global sea levels rising about eight inches since the beginning of the 20th century, and more than two inches in the last two decades alone. 

The melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets poses the most significant threat to sea level rise, with potential increases of up to 10 feet within a century if rapid ice loss continues​​.

These changes underline the urgency of addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate further impacts on the planet’s ecosystems and human populations.

The NOC study is published in the journal Weather and Climate Dynamics.


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