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Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 25 August 2005


The summer of 2003 was probably the hottest in Europe since at latest ad 15001,2,3,4, and unusually large numbers of heat-related deaths were reported in France, Germany and Italy5. It is an ill-posed question whether the 2003 heatwave was caused, in a simple deterministic sense, by a modification of the external influences on climate—for example, increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—because almost any such weather event might have occurred by chance in an unmodified climate. However, it is possible to estimate by how much human activities may have increased the risk of the occurrence of such a heatwave6,7,8. Here we use this conceptual framework to estimate the contribution of human-induced increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and other pollutants to the risk of the occurrence of unusually high mean summer temperatures throughout a large region of continental Europe. Using a threshold for mean summer temperature that was exceeded in 2003, but in no other year since the start of the instrumental record in 1851, we estimate it is very likely (confidence level >90%)9 that human influence has at least doubled the risk of a heatwave exceeding this threshold magnitude.

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Figure 1: June–August temperature anomalies (relative to 1961–90 mean, in K) over the region shown in inset.
Figure 2: Power spectra of European mean summer temperature.
Figure 3: Estimated likelihood functions for anthropogenic and natural contributions to European summer temperature changes.
Figure 4: Change in risk of mean European summer temperatures exceeding the 1.6 K threshold.

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P.A.S. was supported by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, D.A.S. by a Wellcome Trust Showcase Award, and M.R.A. received partial support from the NOAA/DoE International Detection and Attribution Group.

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Correspondence to Peter A. Stott.

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Stott, P., Stone, D. & Allen, M. Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003. Nature 432, 610–614 (2004).

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