Letters to Nature

Nature 427, 332-336 (22 January 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature02300; Received 15 September 2003; Accepted 17 December 2003; Published online 11 January 2004

The role of increasing temperature variability in European summer heatwaves

Christoph Schär1, Pier Luigi Vidale1, Daniel Lüthi1, Christoph Frei1, Christian Häberli2, Mark A. Liniger2 & Christof Appenzeller2

  1. Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zürich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zürich, Switzerland
  2. MeteoSwiss, Krähbühlstrasse 58, 8044 Zürich, Switzerland

Correspondence to: Christoph Schär1 Email: schaer@env.ethz.ch

Instrumental observations1, 2 and reconstructions3, 4 of global and hemispheric temperature evolution reveal a pronounced warming during the past approx150 years. One expression of this warming is the observed increase in the occurrence of heatwaves5, 6. Conceptually this increase is understood as a shift of the statistical distribution towards warmer temperatures, while changes in the width of the distribution are often considered small7. Here we show that this framework fails to explain the record-breaking central European summer temperatures in 2003, although it is consistent with observations from previous years. We find that an event like that of summer 2003 is statistically extremely unlikely, even when the observed warming is taken into account. We propose that a regime with an increased variability of temperatures (in addition to increases in mean temperature) may be able to account for summer 2003. To test this proposal, we simulate possible future European climate with a regional climate model in a scenario with increased atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations, and find that temperature variability increases by up to 100%, with maximum changes in central and eastern Europe.

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