Europe, Mediterranean at greatest risk from climate change

Climate change is affecting Europe faster than the rest of the world and rising temperatures could transform the Mediterranean into a salty and stagnant sea, Italian experts said Wednesday.

Warmer waters and increased salinity could doom many of the sea's plant and animal species and ravage the fishing industry, warned participants at a two-day national climate change conference that brought together some 2,000 scientists and officials in Rome.

"Europe and the Mediterranean are warming up faster than the rest of the world," said climatologist Filippo Giorgi. "It's a climate change hot spot, one of the areas where we actually see the change happening."

Scientists still don't know why the region is more sensitive to climate change, but Giorgi said that in the next decades temperature increases hitting Europe during the summer months could be 40-50% higher than elsewhere.

Giorgi said the effects would be similar to those felt during the deadly summer of 2003, when the extraordinary heat was blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Europe and millions of euros in agricultural losses.

"That was a one-in-a-million freak event, but in the future it will be the norm for the summer," said Giorgi, who is a top official in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. network of 2,000 scientists.

The change is also being felt at sea level, with a surface temperature increase of 1.08°F every decade, said Vincenzo Ferrara, an Italian government adviser on climate.

"The Mediterranean is becoming warmer and saltier" due to increased evaporation, Ferrara told the conference, which was held at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Ferrara said this could disrupt the flow at the Strait of Gibraltar, a key gateway to the Mediterranean. The higher salt concentration in the Mediterranean would cause water to flow out into the Atlantic Ocean, as opposed to Atlantic water coming into the Mediterranean, which serves as the sea's lifeline.

Even more worrying, a study conducted by ICRAM, Italy's marine research institute, indicates the temperature increases are creeping into the cold depths of the Mediterranean.

Measurements conducted last winter off Italy's western coast at a depth of up to 300 feet, showed temperatures were about 3.6°F above average.

Temperature differences between the sea's layers create the currents that allow the Mediterranean's waters to mix and bring up fresh nutrients to feed the algae that form the basic diet of most fish species, according to the study.

These temperature rises could wipe out "up to 50% of the species," the study said. The decline in the algae population measured last winter also reduced by 30% the sea's ability to absorb carbon dioxide, one of the gases blamed by scientists for heating the atmosphere like a greenhouse.