What is an extreme weather event? Countries across Europe break temperature records amid ‘unheard of heat’

The warmest January day ever was recorded in at least eight European countries, with one Polish village experiencing temperatures common in May

We are experiencing “the most extreme event in European history”, according to a climatologist, as weather records have been falling across Europe at a disconcerting rate in the last few days.

The warmest January day ever was recorded in at least eight European countries including Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia, according to data collated by Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist who tracks extreme temperatures.

Alex Burkill, a senior meteorologist at the Met Office, said “it has been extreme heat across a huge area” which is “unheard of”.

In Korbielów, Poland, temperatures hit 19C in January, 1C above the annual average. Temperatures of 19C in this Silesian village are more common in May than the start of the year. While in Javorník in the Czech Republic temperatures reached 19.6C, compared with an average of 3C for this time of year.

In Vysokaje, Belarus, temperatures normally hover around zero at this time of year but on Sunday (1 January) they reached 16.4C - this beat the country’s previous record January high by 4.5C.

Local records were also broken at thousands of individual measuring stations - nearly 950 were broken in Germany alone from 31 December to 2 January, Ms Herrera said. Records were also broken at stations in Cantabria, Asturias and the Basque region of Spain.

Northern Spain and the south of France basked in beach weather, with 24.9C in Bilbao, its hottest ever January day. Only Norway, Britain, Ireland, Italy and the south-east Mediterranean posted no records.

What is an extreme weather event?

Extreme weather is a weather event that is significantly different from the average or usual weather pattern. It is an occurrence of an unusually severe weather or climate condition.

It may take place over one day or a period of time, and can cause devastating impacts on communities and the environment.

According to the Met Office, the different types of extreme weather include: flooding, storm surges, thunderstorms, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, drought, dust and sand storms, and blizzards.

What is causing this extreme heat?

Ms Herrera said: “We can arguably say this is the first time an extreme weather event in Europe (in terms of extreme heat) is comparable to the most extreme in North America.

“Take the case of July 2022 UK extreme heatwave and spread this sigma (magnitude) in a much huger area, encompassing about 15 countries. We can regard this as the most extreme event in European history.”

Mr Burkill said the extreme weather has been “widespread” with it “worth noting we had had some exceptionally warm weather in the south of England.”

He added: “New Year’s Eve, I think about seven sites in southern England recorded their warmest ever New Year’s Eve on record.”

Mr Burkill said a warm air mass that developed off the west coast of Africa had travelled north-east across Europe from Portugal and Spain, pulled in by high pressure over the Mediterranean.

However, causes of the extreme weather have been difficult to confirm, according to meteorologist Scott Duncan. He said both La Niña and anomalous warmth in sea surfaces played a role.

He said: “None of the above here is new though, so what took extreme to record-smashing status? Our warming atmosphere and oceans are ultimately making records easier to break.”

Professor Bill McGuire, who has written about the consequences of climate breakdown, said the high temperatures were a portent of worse to come and it is a “small glimpse” of the future.

He said: “The most worrying thing about this is that, such is the speed of global heating, it simply isn’t a surprise any longer. It is a small glimpse of a future that will see winter reduced to a couple of months of dreary, damp, and mild weather, with little in the way of frost, ice or snow.”