Four ways winter heatwaves affect humans and nature

Temperature anomaly in Europe, Jan 1. Much of the continent was 10°C or more (dark red and grey) above the long-term average.
WX Charts, CC BY-NC

An extreme winter heatwave meant countries across Europe experienced a record-breaking New Year’s Day. New daily temperature records for the month of January were set in at least eight countries: Belarus, Czechia, Denmark, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Netherlands and Poland.

In many cases the temperatures were not just breaking the old highs, but smashing them by massive margins. On a typical January day in Warsaw, Poland, temperatures would barely go above freezing, yet the city recently experienced 19℃, breaking the previous January high by 5.1℃.

New January records were set at thousands of individual stations in many other countries such as 25.1℃ at Bilbao airport in Spain, 0.7℃ hotter than the previous record set only last year. Large areas of central and Eastern Europe experienced temperatures 10℃ to 15℃ warmer than average for this time of year – and that has persisted through the week.

When Europe experienced extreme heat in July of last year, more than 20,000 died. Fortunately winter heatwaves are much less deadly, but they can still affect both human society and natural ecosystems in many ways.

1. Less energy is needed

In Europe deaths due to cold weather vastly outweigh those caused by extreme high temperatures – in the UK there are ten times more. Warmer winters will reduce this excess mortality and, with the current cost-of-living crisis, many will have been relieved that a heatwave meant less energy was needed to heat their homes.

Electricity demand is influenced by things like the time of day, the day of the week and socio-economic factors like the COVID pandemic or the war in Ukraine. The weather also makes a difference. For example, in Poland and the Netherlands demand was noticeably lower than average, especially since January 1 was a Sunday. The extent of the heatwave also meant countries could refill some of their winter gas reserves, or large batteries.

Energy consumption in Poland December 28 to January 5. The red line shows the 2022-2023 heatwave period, and the grey lines show available data from 2015-2022.
Hannah Bloomfield / data:, Author provided

2. Reduced yields for some crops

Winter warm spells don’t always have such a positive impact though. For instance a lack of snow in the mountains affects agriculture and can reduce crop yield, since snow creates an insulating blanket that prevents frost from penetrating into the soil. This means snow can actually increase soil moisture more than rainfall, thus improving growing conditions later in the season.

The big snow melt in spring time replenishes reservoirs and allows hydroelectricity generation, but unexpected snow melt can lead to flooding. Changes to the timings of these events will require preparation and adaptation to enable a steady supply of water to where we need it.

Warmer temperatures will create longer growing seasons in many regions. This is not always the case though. A recent study showed that for alpine grasslands an earlier growing season (the point when snow has melted entirely) leads to ageing and browning of the grasses in the later part of the summer.

3. The snow economy is in trouble

The heatwave caused ski resorts across the Alps to close in what should be their busiest time of year. In January the slopes would be expected to have a good covering of snow – but instead we saw green grassy fields.

This hits the local economy where many people rely on winter sports tourism. Events such as the Adelboden alpine ski World Cup are relying on artificial snow, which comes with a further environmental cost increasing the carbon footprint of ski resorts and requiring a large water supply. Indeed, the Beijing winter Olympics used the equivalent of daily drinking water for 900 million people to generate the artificial snow it required.

4. Animals out of sync with the climate

We humans are perhaps fortunate, as we are able to adapt. Some ski resorts have already opened mountain bike trails in winter to offer alternative tourism, but wildlife and ecosystems cannot adjust so rapidly.

In the mountains many species, such as ptarmigan and mountain hares, change their colouring for winter to camouflage in the white snow. The timing of this change is determined by length of day – not the temperature or amount of snow. These creatures are at greater risk of being preyed on when it is warmer.

White rabbit, brown background
Mountain hares are dressed for a climate that has changed.
Mark Medcalf / shutterstock

Over the past century heat extremes in Europe have increased in intensity and frequency. Both the general warming and heatwave events have been firmly attributed to humans.

Future projections suggest these trends will continue and heatwaves in both summer and winter will get hotter, last longer, and occur more often. We need to learn to adapt for these changes in all seasons and think about the impacts on everyone – and everything – on our planet.The Conversation


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Dr Vikki Thompson, Senior Research Associate in Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol and Dr Hannah Bloomfield, Postdoctoral Researcher in Climate Risk Analytics, University of BristolThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Insects will struggle to keep pace with global temperature rise – which could be bad news for humans

Animals can only endure temperatures within a given range. The upper and lower temperatures of this range are called its critical thermal limits. As these limits are exceeded, an animal must either adjust or migrate to a cooler climate.

However, temperatures are rising across the world at a rapid pace. The record-breaking heatwaves experienced across Europe this summer are indicative of this. Heatwaves such as these can cause temperatures to regularly surpass critical thermal limits, endangering many species.

In a new study, my colleagues and I assessed how well 102 species of insect can adjust their critical thermal limits to survive temperature extremes. We found that insects have a weak capacity to do so, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The impact of climate change on insects could have profound consequences for human life. Many insect species serve important ecological functions while the movement of others can disrupt the balance of ecosystems.

How do animals adjust to temperature extremes?

An animal can extend its critical thermal limits through either acclimation or adaptation.

Acclimation occurs within an animal’s lifetime (often within hours). It’s the process by which previous exposure helps give an animal or insect protection against later environmental stress. Humans acclimate to intense UV exposure through gradual tanning which later protects skin against harmful UV rays.

One way insects acclimate is by producing heat shock proteins in response to heat exposure. This prevents cells dying under temperature extremes.

A ladybird drinking a speck of water on a narrow leaf.
Insects in warmer environments develop fewer spots to reduce heat retention.

Some insects can also use colour to acclimate. Ladybirds that develop in warm environments emerge from the pupal stage with less spots than insects that develop in the cold. As darker spots absorb heat, having fewer spots keeps the insect cooler.

Adaptation occurs when useful genes are passed through generations via evolution. There are multiple examples of animals evolving in response to climate change.

Over the past 150 years, some Australian parrot species such as gang-gang cockatoos and red-rumped parrots have evolved larger beaks. As a greater quantity of blood can be diverted to a larger beak, more heat can be lost into the surrounding environment.

A colourful red-rumped parrot perched on a branch.
The red-rumped parrot has evolved a larger beak to cope with higher temperatures.

But evolution occurs over a longer period than acclimation and may not allow critical thermal limits to adjust in line with the current pace of global temperature rise. Upper thermal limits are particularly slow to evolve, which may be due to the large genetic changes required for greater heat tolerance.

Research into how acclimation might help animals survive exceptional temperature rise has therefore become an area of growing scientific interest.

A weak ability to adjust to temperature extremes

When exposed to a 1℃ change in temperature, we found that insects could only modify their upper thermal limit by around 10% and their lower limit by around 15% on average. In comparison, a separate study found that fish and crustaceans could modify their limits by around 30%.

But we found that there are windows during development where an insect has a greater tolerance towards heat. As juvenile insects are less mobile than adults, they are less able to use their behaviour to modify their temperature. A caterpillar in its cocoon stage, for example, cannot move into the shade to escape the heat.

Exposed to greater temperature variations, this immobile life stage has faced strong evolutionary pressure to develop mechanisms to withstand temperature stress. Juvenile insects generally had a greater capacity for acclimating to rising temperatures than adult insects. Juveniles were able to modify their upper thermal limit by 11% on average, compared to 7% for adults.

But given that their capacity to acclimate is still relatively weak and may fall as an insect leaves this life stage, the impact is likely to be limited for adjusting to future climate change.

What does this mean for the future?

A weak ability to adjust to higher temperatures will mean many insects will need to migrate to cooler climates in order to survive. The movement of insects into new environments could upset the delicate balance of ecosystems.

Insect pests account for the loss of 40% of global crop production. As their geographical distribution changes, pests could further threaten food security. A UN report from 2021 concluded that fall armyworm populations, which feed on crops such as maize, have already expanded their range due to climate change.

A damaged corn crop following an attack by fall armyworms.
The fall armyworm is a damaging crop pest which is spreading due to climate change.
Alchemist from India/Shutterstock

Insect migration may also carry profound impacts on human health. Many of the major diseases affecting humans, including malaria, are transmitted by insects. The movement of insects over time increases the possibility of introducing infectious diseases to higher latitudes.

There have been over 770 cases of West Nile virus recorded in Europe this year. Italy’s Veneto region, where the majority of the cases originate, has emerged as an ideal habitat for Culex mosquitoes, which can host and transmit the virus. Earlier this year, scientists found that the number of mosquitoes in the region had increased by 27%.

Insect species incapable of migrating may also become extinct. This is of concern because many insects perform important ecological functions. Three quarters of the crops produced globally are fertilised by pollinators. Their loss could cause a sharp reduction in global food production.

The vulnerability of insects to temperature extremes means that we face an uncertain and worrying future if we cannot curb the pace of climate change. A clear way of protecting these species is to slow the pace of climate change by reducing fossil fuel consumption. On a smaller scale, the creation of shady habitats, which contain cooler microclimates, could provide essential respite for insects facing rising temperatures.The Conversation


This blog is written by Hester Weaving, PhD Candidate in Entomology, University of BristolThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hester Weaving