In Europe, Mediterranean and mountain regions are most vulnerable to environmental change

25 Oct 2005

The vulnerability of several European regions to global environmental change will increase during coming decades, creating problems for agriculture, forestry, nature conservation, energy, water and tourism. This is a consequence of both climate change and changing land use. Together, these changes reduce the ability of ecosystems to deliver the `services' human society needs, such as food, water and recreation. Particular at risk are the Mediterranean and mountain regions. These are the main conclusions of a new study, published in `Science' this week. The work was sponsored by the European Commission, carried out jointly by 16 European research institutions, and led by the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research and Wageningen University.

Researchers developed alternative scenarios of change in socio-economic factors, climate, and land use across Europe until the end of this century. Discussions with professionals from businesses and public bodies who are most likely to be affected helped to define relevant impact indicators. The dialogue prepared users to consider the results of the work in their policy and business decisions. `It was particularly important to us to involve professional experts right from the beginning of the project. We wanted these stakeholders to be able to influence our methods, our understanding of the human-environment system, the issues we address and the way we present our results', says Dr. Dagmar Schröter, lead author and scientific coordinator of the study.

Overall, the scientists found that European trends in land use change offer some opportunities for sustainable management (e.g. `surplus land' for agricultural extensification and bioenergy production). Climate change was important, however, causing problems for people in many regions. For example, by 2080 an additional 14 to 38% of the Mediterranean population will be living in watersheds with increased water stress due to climate change alone. This comes in addition to stresses caused by rising water demand for tourism and irrigation.

The scientists expect an increased frequency and severity of droughts, similar to those observed in 2003 and 2005. These droughts increase fire risk, especially in Mediterranean regions. Higher temperature and reduced snow cover alter the timing and amount of runoff in rivers and streams: less during summer and more in winter. This increases the risk of winter floods and reduces navigability and hydropower potential in the summer. The reduced snow cover also strongly affects winter tourism.

`Nature reserve managers will have to cope with substantial changes in the abundance and distribution of plant and animal species', Dr. Schröter explains, adding that, `particularly mountain and Mediterranean species are sensitive, and we observe changes already today.' More flexible management of nature reserves could possibly reduce some losses. However, the invited experts pointed out great difficulties in changing existing reserve boundaries under current policies and land ownership restrictions.

The study confirms that Europe's ecosystems currently absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel emissions. Expected increases in forest area and atmospheric CO2 concentrations will influence this sink positively. However, by the end of this century warming also accelerates carbon release from soils. European forests and grasslands will then contribute to, rather than absorb emissions.

The professionals from businesses and public bodies welcomed the study. They emphasized that the negative prospects of global change are an important issue of concern to them, albeit one among many others. In a complex context of economic trends and policy regulation, they have to deal with a possible range of global change impacts that differ strongly across Europe. The study is the first to quantify these impacts of global change on a diverse set of services that link ecosystems and people's well-being.

More information

Dr. D. Schröter, affiliated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Potsdam, Germany) and the George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University (Worcester, USA). Current address: 59 Aberdeen Avenue, Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA. Tel. +1 617 447 8479. e-mail:

Prof. W. Cramer, Department of Global Change and Natural Systems, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, PO Box 60 12 03, D-144 12 Potsdam, Germany, Tel. +49-331-288-2521, e-mail:

Prof. Dr. R. Leemans, Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen University, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands, Tel +31-317-484919, e-mail: , and

Until the embargoes lifts, the article can be obtained through AAAS, Tel. +1 202-326-6440 or, as well as at the password-protected site


Dagmar Schröter, Wolfgang Cramer, Rik Leemans, et al., Ecosystem Service Supply and Vulnerability to Global Change in Europe, Science (in press, )


Impacts of global change will include changes in the supply of ecosystem services vital for human well-being. In a Europe-wide assessment we investigated ecosystem service supply during the 21st century using a range of ecosystem models and scenarios of climate and land use change. Large changes in climate and land use typically resulted in large changes in ecosystem service supply. Some of these trends may be positive (e.g. increases in forest area and productivity), or offer opportunities (e.g., `surplus land' for agricultural extensification and bioenergy production). However, many changes increase vulnerability due to a decreasing supply of ecosystem services (e.g. declining soil fertility, declining water availability, increasing risk of forest fires), especially in the Mediterranean and mountain regions.