Finding the heat-spot: tracking and preempting wildfires, droughts and floods in Greece and beyond

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In recent years, Greece, like several countries in the Mediterranean, has faced an escalating environmental crisis, with wildfires, flash floods, and extreme weather events underscoring the need for EU-wide solutions to climate adaptation. Partners of the EU-funded IMPETUS project are working to find such solutions.

Last summer, Greece grappled with a relentless series of wildfires that have left a lasting impact on the nation. Over the last three years, approximately 321,000 acres of land have been consumed by these devastating fires, equivalent to five times the area of Athens.

Addressing the effects of the climate crisis has become increasingly urgent as wildfires, flash floods, and extreme weather events have taken their toll, causing both economic and human losses. Mediterranean countries like Greece are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change, as the region is experiencing warming at a pace significantly faster than the global average.

Professor Aravossis from the Ministry of Environment and Energy in Greece emphasizes the need for immediate action, stating, “We had deaths, people not only suffering economically, but also we had the people that lost their lives. Therefore, I think it is very important to act now.”

Mapping the at risk areas with the HIPS tool developed by IMPETUS

One particularly vulnerable area, Penteli, located about 25 kilometers northeast of Athens, has witnessed repeated wildfires, with the most recent occurring in July 2022. Local residents have faced the devastating aftermath, including burned cars, forests, and mountains.
These regions in Attica are struggling to recover from the damage they have already endured, and they lack the economic means and capacity to adapt to future catastrophes. Immediate assistance is crucial to help these communities.

The impact of climate change is not uniform, and it disproportionately affects vulnerable populations. Socio-economic factors, such as wealth, employment rates, and infrastructure, play a crucial role in determining a region’s adaptability or vulnerability to climate change. These vulnerable regions facing high climate risk are often referred to as ‘hotspots.’

In an effort to address these climate hotspots and prioritize areas for intervention, partners at in the EU-funded IMPETUS project are working on new digital tools such as the Hot-spot Identification and Prioritization Service – HIPS (still in beta phase). This online tool combines climate data from satellites with population information to identify regions lacking the means to cope with climate risk.

Professor Makropoulos notes, “The bottleneck in taking evidence-based or database decisions was the unavailability of data. Now, over the past few years, things have moved a lot, the collection of these types of information, the socioeconomic bottom-up information, if you like, has become more widespread.”

Within the context of the IMPETUS project, researchers predict that the Attica region will experience prolonged heatwaves, with temperatures projected to reach an average of 35 degrees Celsius within the next fifty years. Reduced rainfall is also expected in this Mediterranean region, making hotter and drier summers conducive to wildfires.

While some forest fire cases may result from arson, climate change accelerates the accumulation of dry, flammable material in the forests, enabling fires to spread more rapidly.

Taking preventive measures 

To address these issues, Greece is implementing a national forestation plan, covering nearly 180,000 acres over the next three years. This initiative is particularly crucial for the mountains of Attica, where wildfires have left barren landscapes that increase the risk of floods and mudflows.

The Municipality of Mandra, which suffered flash floods in 2017, is another hotspot in the process of recovery. The economic and emotional impacts of these disasters have been profound, with residents still grappling with the aftermath years later.

In November 2022, flash floods hit central Greece, claiming 16 lives, while a November flood in Attica resulted in 25 deaths and hundreds of people becoming homeless.

The Greek government is taking comprehensive action, with new climate laws aimed at mitigation and adaptation. The targets include achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, reducing greenhouse gases by 55%, and transitioning to renewable energy sources by 2030. The “Hot-spot Identification and Prioritization Service” is expected to play a pivotal role in introducing new policies to support vulnerable populations.

Professor Aravossis underscores the importance of immediate sustainability actions, stating, “If we don’t take immediate sustainability actions, there will be a great risk for mankind’s survival.”

The fight against wildfires in Greece serves as a stark reminder of the urgency of addressing climate change and taking collective action to protect both the environment and vulnerable communities across the EU.

 

Explore the HIPS tool (still in beta phase) and other IMPETUS solutions here 

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High temperatures

Record-breaking summertime temperatures have been recorded in the Netherlands in recent years. With global temperatures rising, such extreme weather events will occur more often, and for longer periods. Prolonged high temperatures, with warm nights as well as hot days, can cause heat stress* and related health issues, particularly among city populations.

*Heat stress occurs when the human body cannot get rid of excess heat and can impact wellbeing through conditions such as heat stroke, exhaustion, cramps and rashes.

"We want to enable municipality decision makers who are working on spatial developments to identify heat stress 'hot spots' and cool areas, analyse the future effects of climate change, and model the effect of different heat stress-reducing measures. The tool must provide them with an easy starting point to integrate heat stress risks in their projects."

Issue

Despite the cooling effect of the sea in the region of Zeeland, the growing risk of heat stress has become a concern.

Elderly and other vulnerable people are more impacted by the effects of prolonged heat, which can cause headaches, dizziness, insomnia and other health issues – even death. Excess temperatures also affect general comfort and liveability of cities. Water quality can be reduced, both for drinking and swimming, and infrastructure can be affected. Buildings and concrete surfaces trap heat, potentially leading to damage, and release it during the night, keeping temperatures warm.

During heat waves, it is important that everyone has access to a cool and comfortable place. Appropriate spatial planning can help to decrease and deal with heat stress. Environmental factors like water bodies, trees, and shade have a major impact on stress caused by high temperatures. Therefore, planting trees, removing concrete surfaces, creating green roofs and cool spaces can improve our comfort and health. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for city planning to address these needs.

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Flood risk

By 2050, sea-level within this region is predicted to rise by 15-40 cm, with more frequent extreme weather and more (severe) storms triggered by climate change. These changes will exacerbate the natural risk of flooding in the IMPETUS ‘Atlantic’ region, because it is surrounded by rivers and the sea, and is below sea level.

*Risk takes into account two aspects; the chance that an event will occur and the negative impact of such an event once it occurs. When there is a low chance that an event will occur, but its impacts are huge, the risk is still significant.

“In the Netherlands, an extensive system of dikes protects us against sea and river flooding. We have always put our faith in this defence and focused almost solely on flood prevention. However, pressure on our system will increase with climate change and rising sea levels. To adapt and maintain a safe living environment, we should develop other safety measures, like more robust spatial planning and contingency plans."

Issue

Rotterdam city, is located in Rijnmond – ‘mouth of the Rhine’. The Rhine river flows through this densely populated area and characterises the region. Protections such as sea dikes and storm surge barriers have been constructed to protect the region, but flooding still occurs.

People living in the city are accustomed to seeing smaller floods. The changing climate affects the interplay between rainfall, river levels and sea storms, increasing the flooding risk. Water levels could rise by a few metres, even in populated areas, with potentially massive impacts. 

Mitigation measures such as storm surge barriers reduce the chance that high water reaches the city, but to minimise the impact of floods when they do occur, adaptation strategies are also needed. A city that can adapt to be safe from floods must be carefully designed. How best to design such an adaptive city?

Critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and evacuation routes, must be accessible at all times. Planning how to best protect them, homes and lives is complex. Flood water behaves in a complex way and flood risks show strong spatial variations. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for adaptive city planning. 

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Energy and waste water

To become climate-neutral by 2050, climate mitigation* efforts are crucial in our strategy for how to deal with climate change. Reducing our energy consumption is a significant mitigation step. In the Netherlands, 15% of energy is consumed in the Rijnmond area around the port of Rotterdam, in large part by a major petrochemical industry cluster.

*Climate mitigation encompasses measures such as technologies, processes, or practices that reduce carbon emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.

Issue

The Rotterdam port petrochemical industry cluster is Europe’s largest. It consumes 70% of the Rijnmond region’s energy. A large part of this energy is wasted (64%, 203 petajoules). More than half of that energy is lost with wastewater. In addition, most energy processes within these industries rely on fossil fuels, which has a significant impact on the climate.

Energy use must be minimised and fossil fuels should be replaced by renewable sources if climate change is to be mitigated. Electrification of processes opens up the possibility to use more renewable energy and can greatly impact decarbonisation. Recovering wasted heat would significantly reduce energy consumption and is a first step towards a more circular industry. 

Supporting industries in a transition towards climate-neutrality depends on identifying how best to reduce their carbon footprint without sacrificing production or performance. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is creating a digital tool that supports decision making about pathways towards an effective energy transition for EU industry.