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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Europe tackles freak weather risk
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Snowy Alps   PA
The Alps are becoming less icy
Rising temperatures are shrinking all but two of the main glaciers that give Europeans clean water, scientists say.

A report by the European Environment Agency says the current rate of glacier retreat is now reaching levels higher than those of the last 10,000 years.

It says climate change is affecting the whole environment, from the plight of glaciers to plants' growing seasons.

The EEA is developing a continent-wide internet information system to help people to prepare for extreme weather.

Looking for help

From 1850 to 1970, it says in EEA Signals 2004, glaciers in the European Alps lost about a third of their area and half their mass, with 20-30% of the remaining ice lost since 1980.

Extreme weather needs dealing with systematically, not simply as something you forget about the day after it's happened
Professor Jacqueline McGlade, EEA
It says about 75% of the glaciers in the Swiss Alps are likely to disappear by 2050.

The agency's executive director, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, said what happened during extreme events was perhaps more important than the monitoring of climate change's impacts.

Speaking at a conference in Hungary of European environment and health ministers organised by the World Health Organisation, Professor McGlade said the EEA had placed on its website satellite images of the distribution of fires in Italy and Portugal in recent summers.

Pinpointing the problems

She said: "We noticed a significant increase in web traffic and were informed after the event that the public had been unable to obtain local information of where fires were spreading and were therefore using the EEA site instead."

So the agency was building "a geo-referenced public information service on the environment, called In Your Backyard".

Flooded rail tracks, Sussex   PA
Floods on the track: A UK town in 2000
Professor McGlade told BBC News Online: "What that means is you'll be able to type in your postcode, wherever in Europe you live, and find information about your neighbourhood.

"Some of it will be about landfill sites, or power plants, for example, and that part should be ready by the end of this year.

"But by mid-2005 we hope to be providing details of threats from events like heatwaves, droughts and floods.

"The time has come when extreme weather needs dealing with systematically, not simply as something you forget about the day after it's happened."

Professor McGlade said the agency was developing adaptation and mitigation scenarios for a range of climate change impact possibilities for Europe.

Stitch in time

These would help people to realise that what was seen now as a once-a-century flood in eastern England, for example, would by 2080 become a once-a-decade event, of increased intensity and size.

What mattered was not only the response to extremes of weather, but also the planning that prepared people for them.

Professor McGlade said: "Across Europe it is still the case that many of our hospitals, retirement homes and schools are situated in today's flood plains. The situation can only worsen."

Heatwave victims' unmarked grave   AP
Some French heatwave victims were buried in unmarked graves
Dr Bettina Menne, of WHO Europe's Global Change and Health Programme, told BBC News Online it was now thought more than 25,000 people had died in last year's European heatwave.

She said: "We can't say categorically that climate change was the cause, but there is increasing evidence of a warming trend across Europe.

"We'll have more heatwaves, and we know the consequences will be serious, with the over-75s the most affected.

"Last year the biggest proportion of those who died were in retirement homes, and we need to train carers to rehydrate patients, especially as old people can fail to feel the need to drink enough in the heat.

"We didn't expect Europe to have been so affected by extreme weather. The crisis came much earlier than we thought."

'Wireless pebbles' track glaciers
21 Jun 04  |  Technology
Patagonian ice in rapid retreat
27 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
2003 summer hottest in 500 years
05 Mar 04  |  Europe
French heat toll almost 15,000
25 Sep 03  |  Europe


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