The European Heat wave of 2003 as seen from MODIS

Europe was experiencing a historic heat wave during the summer 2003. Compared to the long term climatological mean, temperatures in July 2003 were sizzling. Figure 1 below shows the differences in day time land surface temperatures of 2003 to the ones collected in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004 by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.

Figure: The visualization displays TERRA MODIS (MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) derived land surface temperature data of 1km spatial resolution (Click on the image to get the high resolution TIFF file). The difference in land surface temperature is calculated by subtracting the average of all cloud free data during 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004 from the ones in measured in 2003, covering the date range of July 20 – August 20. (Cite this image as: Image by Reto Stöckli, Robert Simmon and David Herring, NASA Earth Observatory, based on data from the MODIS land team).

Image story

A blanket of deep red across southern and eastern France (left of image center) shows where radiative temperatures were 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter in summer 2003 than in the other years. White areas show where temperatures were similar, and blue shows where temperatures were cooler in 2003 than in 2000,2001,2002 and 2004.

Even the Alps, which arc across southeastern France, Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy (just below image center), were very warm this year. Glaciers were melting rapidly and swelling rivers and lakes to dangerously high levels. Climbers had to be evacuated from Switzerland’s famous Matterhorn after melting triggered the collapse of a rock face. The popular climbing destination had been closed while geologists assess the possibility of further collapses.

The heat wave stretched northward all the way to the United Kingdom, particularly southern England (bottom of island) and Scotland (top of island). In London, trains were shut down over fears that tracks would buckle in the heat, while in Scotland the high temperatures combined with falling water levels in rivers and streams are threatening the spawning and survival of salmon. Throughout France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, the intense heat and dry conditions sparked devastating forest fires.


Please find the highest resolution version of the 2003 LST, LAI and FPAR anomaly here.


Schär, C., P.L. Vidale, D. Lüthi, C. Frei, C. Häberli, M. Liniger and C. Appenzeller, 2004: The role of increasing temperature variability in European summer heat waves. Nature ,doi:10.1038/nature02300

Black, E., Blackburn, M., Harrison, G., Hoskins, B.J. and Methven, J. 2004. Factors contributing to the summer 2003 European heatwave. Weather, 59 , 217-223

R. Allen, Richard Lord Q.C., 2004: Climate change: the spectre of liability. Nature, 432, 551-552 (includes the above visualization).