The four degrees: How Europe's hottest summer shows global warming is transforming our world

It was the summer, scientists now realise, when global warming at last made itself unmistakably felt.

We knew that summer 2003 was remarkable: Britain experienced its record high temperature and continental Europe saw forest fires raging out of control, great rivers drying to a trickle and thousands of heat-related deaths. But just how remarkable is only now becoming clear.

The three months of June, July and August were the warmest ever recorded in western and central Europe, with record national highs in Portugal, Germany and Switzerland as well as in Britain. And they were the warmest by a very long way.

Over a great rectangular block of the earth stretching from west of Paris to northern Italy, taking in Switzerland and southern Germany, the average temperature for the summer months was 3.78C above the long-term norm, said the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, which is one of the world's leading institutions for the monitoring and analysis of temperature records.

That excess might not seem a lot until you are aware of the context - but then you realise it is enormous. There is nothing like this in previous data, anywhere.

It is considered so exceptional that Professor Phil Jones, the CRU's director, is prepared to say openly - in a way few scientists have done before - that the 2003 extreme may be directly attributed, not to natural climate variability, but to global warming caused by human actions. Meteorologists have hitherto contented themselves with the formula that recent high temperatures are "consistent with predictions" of climate change.

For the great block of the map - that stretching between 35-50N and 0-20E - the CRU has reliable temperature records dating back to 1781.

Using as a baseline the average summer temperature recorded between 1961 and 1990, departures from the temperature norm, or "anomalies", over the area as a whole can easily be plotted. As the graph shows, such is the variability of our climate that over the past 200 years, there have been at least half a dozen anomalies, in terms of excess temperature - the peaks on the graph denoting very hot years - approaching, or even exceeding, 2C. But there has been nothing remotely like 2003, when the anomaly is nearly four degrees.

"This is quite remarkable," Professor Jones told The Independent. "It's very unusual in a statistical sense. If this series had a normal statistical distribution you wouldn't get this number. The return period [how often it could be expected to recur] would be something like one in a thousand years.

"If we look at an excess above the average of nearly four degrees, then perhaps nearly three degrees of that is natural variability, because we've seen than in past summers. But the final degree of it is likely to be due to global warming, caused by human action."

The summer of 2003 has, in a sense, been one that climate scientists have long been expecting. Until now, the warming has been manifesting itself mainly in winters that have been less cold than in summers that have been much more hot. Last week, the United Nations predicted that winters were warming so quickly that winter sports would die out in Europe's lower-level ski resorts. But sooner or later the unprecedented hot summer was bound to come, and this year it did.

Over a large swath of the western part of the European continent, records were broken in all three months, not just monthly averages, but for daily extremes and the lengths of spells above thresholds. New national records were set in at least four countries. Britain experienced its record high on 10 August when the mercury registered 38.5 C(101.3F) at Faversham in Kent - the first time the British Isles had recorded a three-figure Fahrenheit temperature.

Germany had a new record of 40.8C (105.4), Switzerland one of 41.5C (106.7F) - Swiss data show the summer as the hottest since at least 1500 - and Portugal a quite astonishing 47.3C (117.1F).

Although France did not see a new national record - that still stands at the 44C (111.2F) registered at Toulouse on 8 August 1923 - the country suffered severely from La Canicule, the heat wave, which was headline news for most of the late summer. In southern and eastern France, according to Professor Jones, 29 sites recorded temperatures exceeding 40C (104F) during August, with the record being 42.6C (108.7F) at Orange in the Rhône valley.

One of the most dramatic features of the summer was the hot nights, especially in the first half of August. In Paris, the temperature never dropped below 23C (73.4F) at all between 7 and 14 August, and the city recorded its warmest-ever night on 11-12 August, when the mercury did not drop below 25.5C (77.9F). Germany recorded its warmest-ever night at Weinbiet in the Rhine valley with a lowest figure of 27.6C (80.6F) on 13 August, and similar record-breaking night-time temperatures were recorded in Switzerland and Italy.

The 15,000 excess deaths in France during August, compared with previous years, have been related to the high night-time temperatures. The numbers gradually increased during the first 12 days of the month, peaking at about 2000 per day on the night of 12-13 August, then fell off dramatically after 14 August when the minimum temperatures fell by about 5C. The elderly were most affected, with a 70 per cent increase in mortality rate in those aged 75-94.

For Britain, the year as a whole is likely to be the warmest ever recorded, but despite the high temperature record on 10 August, the summer itself - defined as the June, July and August period - still comes behind 1976 and 1995, when there were longer periods of intense heat.

At the moment, the year is on course to be the third-hottest ever in the global temperature record, which goes back to 1856, behind 1998 and 2002, but when all the records for October, November and December are collated, it might move into second place, Professor Jones said. The 10 hottest years in the record have all now occurred since 1990. Professor Jones is in no doubt about the astonishing nature of European summer of 2003. "The temperatures recorded were out of all proportion to the previous record," he said. "It was the warmest summer in the past 500 years and probably way beyond that. It was enormously exceptional."

His colleagues at the University of East Anglia's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research are now planning a special study of it. "It was a summer that has not been experienced before, either in terms of the temperature extremes that were reached, or the range and diversity of the impacts of the extreme heat," said the centre's executive director, Professor Mike Hulme.

"There were impacts on health in France, on hydroelectricity in Spain, on agriculture in southern Germany and on transportation in Italy.

"It will certainly have left its mark on a number of countries, as to how they think and plan for climate change in the future, much as the 2000 floods here revolutionised the way the Government is thinking about flooding in the UK.

"The 2003 heatwave will have similar repercussions across Europe."

A taste of things to come

How the land suffered: first the fields dried and turned yellow, then the forests burst into flames. The rivers disappeared; the glaciers melted; the old died.

Although in Britain we dream of hot weather, across Europe the heatwave of last June, July and August was too much for most people.

The heatwave was record-breaking in its extremity, with temperatures exceeding 100F (37.78C) across a vast area of Europe, and the prolonged period of drought made it worse. Parts of eastern France had been without rain since February, the longest spell in a century. There was no feed for livestock; nothing was green any more.

In Feurs, in the Loire département, a 34-year-old man was arrested for killing his horse in public, cutting it in four pieces and putting in his freezer. He said the drought had shrivelled all the grazing and he had no more grass or feed to keep the animal alive.

In France's south, the tinder-dry brush went up in flames at the hint of a spark and by the third week of July, 40,000 acres were burning between Toulon and Saint Tropez; the Massif des Maures, the chain of hills that form a noble backdrop the Riviera, was burnt to a cinder.

Two Britons, Margaret Timson, 63, and her granddaughter,15-year-old Kirsty Egerton, from Wigan, Greater Manchester, were killed when they tried to escape from the fires, close to La Garde-Freinet, near Frejus, by car. Other tourists from the Netherlands and Poland also lost their lives.

Rivers dried across the continent; in Spain and in Italy there were electricity shortages as hydroelectric power stations ceased to function when the flow dropped.

The Po, Italy's greatest river, was reduced to a trickle. As the rivers began to vanish, so did the Alpine glaciers. Many Swiss glaciers showed dramatic retreats, melting at a rate 10 times that of a normal summer. Italians scientists estimate that their own country's glaciers are now 20 per cent smaller than they were in 1987.

And the old and the infirm, at the heatwave's height in early August, simply keeled over. The French estimate an extra 15,000 deaths during the summer period across the country, but with the largest numbers in Paris.

In Britain, we celebrated; we ate outdoors, we wolfed down ices. But continental Europe in summer 2003 had a taste of what global warming will really be like: unpleasant and dangerous.