More than 20,000 people died after a record-breaking heatwave left Europe sweltering in August 2003. The period of extreme heat is thought to be the warmest for up to 500 years, and many European countries experienced their highest temperatures on record.
The River Danube in Serbia fell to its lowest level in 100 years. Bombs and tanks from World War 2, which had been submerged under water for decades, were revealed, causing a danger to people swimming in the rivers. Reservoirs and rivers used for public water supply and hydro-electric schemes either dried up or ran extremely low.
The lack of rainfall meant very dry conditions occurred over much of Europe. Forest fires broke out in many countries. In Portugal 215,000 hectares area of forest were destroyed. This is an area the same size as Luxembourg. It is estimated millions of tonnes of topsoil were eroded in the year after the fires as the protection of the forest cover was removed. This made river water quality poor when the ash and soil washed into rivers.
The satellite image shown above shows forest fires in southern Portugal and Spain in September 2003. The fires are shown by the red dots and smoke is in white.
Extreme snow and glacier-melt in the European Alps led to increased rock and ice falls in the mountains.
About 15,000 people died due to the heat in France, which led to a shortage of space to store dead bodies in mortuaries. Temporary mortuaries were set up in refrigeration lorries. There were also heat-related deaths in the UK (2,000), Portugal (2,100), Italy (3,100), Holland (1,500) and Germany (300).
We provide the Department of Health with heatwave warnings (Heat-Health Watch) to prepare the NHS, health professionals, carers and the general public for the effects of extreme heat. You can find out more about our Heat-Health Watch warnings in the weather section of the Met Office website.
Summers as hot as 2003 could happen every other year by the year 2050 as a result of climate change due to human activities.
Above is a weather chart for midday on 5 August 2003.
It shows an area of high pressure over most of Western Europe. Air is moving around the high in a clockwise direction, bringing a hot, dry tropical continental air mass to the UK at this time. This pattern occurred for much of the rest of the month. High pressure areas usually bring little cloud and warm conditions in summer.
You can find out more about weather charts in the weather section of the Met Office website.
The satellite images below confirm there is very little cloud over most of Europe.
The image to the left shows a visible satellite image of north-west Europe at 2 p.m. on 5 August. Visible satellites show what you would see if you were in space looking down at Earth. White areas show were there is cloud, the brighter the shading the deeper the cloud. The dark areas show cloud free areas. On this image, the darker areas over most of Europe show the area has thin or little cloud.
This image shows an infrared satellite image for north-west Europe at 2 p.m. on 5 August. Infrared satellite images measure the temperature of the cloud or ground surface. The dark areas show surfaces that are warm and where there is no cloud. The whiter shading indicates cold cloud. The darker the shading of the land, the hotter it is.
You can find out more about satellites in the science section of the Met Office website.
Many parts of Europe saw their temperature records broken during this summer, including the UK. A sweltering 38.5°C was recorded in Brogdale in Kent on 10 August 2003, a record high which still stands today.
Rainfall over much of Europe was below what is normally expected during the months of June, July and August. The long-lasting high pressure system tended to reduce the amount of rain that fell.
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Last updated: 22 April 2015
A forest fire
A river with low levels of water
Family playing on the beach