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INTERVIEW - Watchdog warns of higher Mediterranean temperatures

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Children born today in countries such as Spain and Italy will witness a 7 degrees Celsius rise in summer temperatures by the end of their lives, the European Union’s environment watchdog warned on Tuesday.

A parhelion (sundog) combined with a halo is seen over Lake Malaren in central Stockholm November 30, 2010. REUTERS/Henrik Montgomery/Scanpix

Deaths due to heat shock will rise, southern crops such as grapes will be pushed northwards and flagship European plants such as Switzerland’s edelweiss will face extinction, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said.

“All across Europe we can begin to see the warning signs of climate change,” EEA director Jacqueline McGlade said, as the agency launched its 5-yearly assessment of Europe’s environment.

“We can see a mismatch between the emergence of birds and the foods they would normally eat; fisheries are being infiltrated by species from the south; some species of crops are already struggling to survive,” she told Reuters in an interview.

Alpine glaciers will melt within decades, northern countries will get up to 20 percent rainier by the end of this century and the number of days hotter than 40.7 degrees Celsius will double along Mediterranean coasts by 2080, the report says.

The predictions come the day after talks started in Cancun, Mexico on moves to combat climate change. They also come amid evidence from Britain and the United States that 2010 is among the hottest years on record. [ID:nLDE6AM1OU]

“By the time that children who are born today get to their seventies and eighties they’ll have already had to adapt to increasing temperatures,” said McGlade.

“On a daily basis during the summer, they’ll be experiencing temperatures of more than 40 degrees centigrade in southern Europe.”

Experts at the EEA say that by the end of the century, annual heat-related deaths could be double the 70,000 in the European heat wave of 2003.


“The choice will be between putting water into agriculture or water into drinking,” said McGlade. “Today, already in some countries, agriculture consumes 80 percent of the water that arrives on the territory.”

Crops that have deep cultural significance -- Spanish oranges, French lavender, Italian grapes -- could be profoundly affected.

“Greek olives for example are likely to be able to withstand the higher temperatures, but some of the vineyards we see growing grapes today may have to change some of the species and forms they use,” said McGlade.

“In mountain regions, there are iconic species, for example the edelweiss, that will struggle to survive,” she added, referring to the white, alpine flower that appears on Austrian coins and is an unofficial symbol of Switzerland.

The EEA’s 5-year assessment also had warnings for Europe’s Arctic regions: “The data from 2007, 2008, and 2009 show that Arctic sea ice cover is shrinking significantly faster than projected by climate models.”

McGlade said melting permafrost was already causing problems for the region’s inhabitants.

“In the north, the story is very stark,” she said. “Populations inhabiting these regions have subsidence in their towns and cities, roads are being disrupted and the way of life is significantly changing.”

Warming temperatures will, however, mean fewer deaths in the north due to freezing.

The report says Europe has warmed more than the global average, with average temperatures now 1.3C higher than the 1850-1899 average, compared to an average global rise of around 0.7 degrees Celsius.

Rainfall is projected to increase by roughly 10-20 percent during this century in northern Europe and to decrease by a similar amount in the south. North Africa is also expected to suffer, said McGlade.

“Unless those countries on the southern part of the Mediterranean can solve the issue of water in particular, generations will be looking to move to places where they can be more secure for food and ultimately employment,” she said.

Reporting by Pete Harrison, editing by Rex Merrifield