Home Database Adaptation options Establishment of early warning systems
Adaptation option

Establishment of early warning systems

Early warning systems (EWS) are key elements of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, and aim to avoid or reduce the damages caused from hazards. To be effective, early warning systems need to actively involve the people and communities at risk from a range of hazards, facilitate public education and awareness of risks, disseminate messages and warnings efficiently and ensure that there is a constant state of preparedness and that early action is enabled. The significance of an effective early warning system lies in the recognition of its benefits by local people.

Early warning systems for climate-related risks must rely on a sound scientific and technical basis and focus on people or sectors mostly exposed to risk. This implies the adoption of a system approach incorporating all relevant risk factors, whether arising from the climate-hazards or social vulnerabilities, and from short-term or long-term processes. Early warning systems include detection, analysis, prediction, and then warning dissemination followed by response decision-making and implementation. Such systems are in place, in many parts of the world, to monitor, forecast, and warn people about e.g. tropical cyclones, floods, storms, tsunami, avalanches, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions, extreme heat and cold, forest fires, drought, etc. To be effective and complete, an early warning system needs to comprise four interacting elements namely: (i) risk knowledge, (ii) monitoring and warning services, (iii) dissemination and communication and (iv) response capability.

In Europe there is a considerable experience with early warning systems, especially for what concerns flood and flash-flood risk, storms, forest fires, heatwaves and droughts. Early warning systems are directly relevant for diverse sectors that are primary affected by climate-related risks like health, disaster risk reduction, agriculture, forestry, buildings, coastal and urban areas. Others can indirectly benefit from early warning systems like the transport sector, if roads or rails are closed in advance before humans are negatively impacted, or tourism, when ensuring that tourist groups are warned to access a certain area or avoid outdoor activities during extreme weather periods.

Some EWS provide services and products for more than a specific climate-related risk. Meteoalarm is a joint effort from EUMETNET (The Network of European Meteorological Services) that provides alerts in Europe for extreme weather events, including heavy rain with risk of flooding, severe thunderstorms, gale-force winds, heatwaves, forest fires, fog, snow or extreme cold with blizzards, avalanches or severe coastal tides. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) provides reliable high-quality climate data and tailored information for socio-economic sectors at the European level, which are surely relevant for climate change adaptation. Also the Risk Data Hub of the Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Centre (DRMKC) managed by DG JRC provides curated EU-wide risk data via hosting datasets and through linking to national platforms.

Other EWS focus on specific climate-related risks and/or sectors, including the Europe-wide examples mentioned in the following text. Besides these large scales initiatives, EWS have been designed and implemented at lower levels (national, sub-national and local) as well, e.g. in: (i) Austria, where an EWS for railway transport has been developed (ii) ) North Macedonia focusing on heatwaves and being part of the actions implementing the national heat heal action plan; (iii) Tatabanya (Hungary), to provide alert about urban heatwaves and forest fires; (iv) Emilia Romagna region (Italy), where a regional Weather Alert Web Portal has been developed in parallel to the development and refinement of real-time hydro-meteorological monitoring technologies and a widespread risk communication programme, and (v) Sogn og Fjordane (Norway) dealing with multi-hazards (avalanches, landslides, storm surges and flooding).

Heatwaves and extreme heat

Europe has experienced several extreme summer heatwaves since 2000 (see the “Global and European temperature” EEA indicator), which have led to high mortality and socio-economic impacts. Heat waves are projected to become more frequent and to last longer across Europe during this century and under all RCP scenarios. Under a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5) very extreme heat waves (much stronger than either the 2003 or the 2010 heat waves) are projected to occur as often as every 2 years in the second half of the 21st century. The impacts will be particularly strong in southern Europe. As a response to such risk for human health, as well as for diverse sectors relevant to the economy, many countries have introduced heat-related early warning systems as an adaptation option. At the European scale, EuroHEAT acts as a climate information decision support tool for heat and is accompanied by a guidance document.


The severity and frequency of droughts appear to have increased in parts of Europe (see the “Meteorological and hydrological droughts” EEA indicator), in particular in the southern and south-eastern regions. Droughts are projected to increase in frequency, duration and severity in most of the continent. According to IPCC AR5, the strongest increase is projected for southern Europe, where competition between different water users, such as agriculture, industry, tourism and households, is likely to increase. The European Drought Observatory (EDO) contains drought-relevant information from different data sources. Different tools allow for displaying and analysing drought-related information, while the "Drought News" service provides an overview of the situation in case of imminent droughts.


The number of very severe floods in Europe increased over the period 1980-2010, but with large interannual variability due to different causes: better reporting, land-use changes and increased heavy precipitation in parts of Europe. Climate change is projected to intensify the hydrological cycle and increase the occurrence and frequency of flood events in large parts of Europe. Pluvial floods and flash floods, which are triggered by intense local precipitation events, are likely to become more frequent throughout Europe (see the “River floods” EEA indicator). Coastal storm surges and floods are the most frequent and costly extreme weather events occurring in Europe, representing 69% of the overall natural catastrophic losses. In 2010, for example, France was hardly hit by the winter storm Xynthia, with 51 casualties and damages of more than EUR 1.5 billion (EEA, 2013). Enhanced ability to forecast peak discharges remains the most relevant non-structural measure for flood protection. Flood warning lead-times of 3–10 days give the possibility to set up the needed civil protection and emergency measures, minimising the impacts in terms of human lives and economic losses. The European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) supports preparatory measures before major flood events strike, particularly in the large trans-national river basins and throughout Europe in general. EFAS has been developed and tested at the Joint Research Centre in close collaboration with national hydrological and meteorological services, European Civil Protection and other research institutes.


Fire risk depends on many factors: climate change, vegetation, forest management practices and other socio-economic factors. In a warmer climate, more severe fire weather and, as a consequence, an expansion of the fire-prone area and longer fire seasons are projected across Europe. The impact of fire events is particularly strong in southern Europe (see the “Forest fires” EEA indicator). The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) supports the services in charge of the protection of forests against fires in the EU countries and provides the European Commission services and the European Parliament with updated and reliable information on wildland fires. EFFIS runs module which generates daily maps of 1 to 9 days of forecasted fire danger level using numerical weather predictions. The module is active all year around, although the core of the wildfire season is, in most countries, from March 1st to October 31st.

Health-related risks: vector-borne diseases and aeroallergen

Globalization and environmental change, social and demographic determinants and health system capacity are significant drivers of infectious diseases which can also act as epidemic precursors. Thus, monitoring changes in these drivers can help anticipate, or even forecast, an upsurge of infectious diseases. Climate change can shift the geographical ranges of vector-borne diseases in Europe, thus early warning is becoming even more important (see the “Vector-borne diseases” EEA indicator). A prototype Early Warning Systems for Vector-Borne Diseases in Europe is suggested for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC): the upstream environmental/climatic and socioeconomic drivers of disease can provide the lead time for a swift public health response in order to contain human and financial costs associated with vector borne disease emergence and spread in the EU.

Rising temperatures caused by climate change mean that plants and trees bloom earlier and for longer, prolonging the suffering of many people with pollen allergies. The European Aeroallergen Network (EAN) is a pool for the pollen and fungal spore data of European pollen information services, individual measurement sites and data suppliers outside Europe. The network covers 38 countries and more than 600 measurement sites. The EAN database is the basic tool for pollen forecasts and thus indispensable for pollen information service in whole Europe. The development of service activities in the recent years (including the European load maps, the pollen diary for pollen allergy sufferers and the personalized pollen information) would not have been possible without the European pollen database. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring service (CAMS) formed a partnership with the European Aeroallergen Network (EAN,) and explores technologies to deliver automatic pollen observations in near real-time across Europe.

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details

IPCC categories

Social: Informational, Structural and physical: Technological options

Stakeholder participation

To sustain an early warning system it is necessary to have strong political commitment and durable institutional capacities, which in turn depend on public awareness. Public awareness and support is often high immediately after a major disaster event; such moments can be capitalized to strengthen and secure the sustainability of early warning systems. The incorrect use of an early warning system could result in significantly increasing the impacts for the affected population. A correct communication and reliability of the institution is a fundamental pre-requisite for an effective early warning system. Early warning also needs to be evaluated jointly with its users, to ensure that the provided information is targeted to user needs and the expected measures are being taken based on the information provided. Thus a certain degree of co-development and co-design with the users is of relevance.

Success and Limiting Factors

The analysis and preparation of information are particularly critical points of an early warning chain. The responsible decision makers are usually confronted with huge amounts of structured and unstructured data. To enable reliable early warning, the available data must be pre-selected, analysed and prepared. The decision makers should be provided with a reliable and manageable amount of information for taking preventive measures. Limitations also include failure to allow for non-climatic confounding factors, limited geographical or temporal resolution, or lack of evaluation of predictive validity.

One of the major challenges of EWS is the establishment of clear institutional arrangements and capacities at national and local levels that support the sustained development of public and institutional response capability. Public understanding of and trust in the system comes with knowledge and awareness on the part of the end users of the system and convincing performance on the part of the public service provider.

Costs and Benefits

Early warning systems are usually cost-effective non-structural measures. Their cost, non-negligible in absolute terms, is extremely low in comparison with the potential amount of losses that these systems allow to reduce. Resources are needed to maintain the system and further improve it. Additionally, the early warning system only functions well, if the network of meteorological and hydrological stations is well-established and accordingly maintained. The availability of other updated information is equally important for targeted early warning systems, as for example in the case of vector-borne diseases, aeroallergens, status of vegetation, etc.

Early warning systems are an important adaptive measure for climate change, using integrated communication systems to support diverse sectors and communities to prepare for climate-related events. A successful EWS saves lives, infrastructures, land and jobs and supports long-term sustainability. Early warning systems aim to assist public officials and administrators as well as private sector actors, communities and individuals in their planning, saving money in the long run and protecting economies.

The European and pan-European early warning and detection systems for weather-driven natural disasters (such as EFAS, EFFIS and the European Drought Observatory) provide an added value which extends beyond national efforts towards transboundary cooperation.

From the financial point of view, the EU has provided consistent investments in the early warning system related strategies. For example, COPERNICUS is the European Programme for the establishment of a European capacity for Earth Observation. COPERNICUS’ services, e.g. COPERNICUS climate change services, are dedicated to the monitoring and forecasting of the Earth's subsystems and contribute directly to the monitoring of climate change. COPERNICUS services also address emergency management services (e.g. in case of natural disaster, forest fires, technological accidents or humanitarian crises) and security-related issues (e.g. maritime surveillance, border control).

Policy focused on specific climate-related risk can have a role in driving the development of EWS. For example the EU Flood and Water Framework Directives foresee that flood forecast and early warning systems are taken in consideration in Flood Risk Management Plans. Actually, improved flood predictions are on the national adaptation agenda of many European countries. Another example is referred to EFAS, which is fully in line with the EC’s communication “Towards a Stronger European Union Disaster Response”, adopted and endorsed by the Council in 2010, which underpins the importance of strengthening concerted actions in case of natural disasters including floods, which are amongst the costliest natural disasters in the EU.

Implementation Time

Design and implementation of an early warning system typically require a 1 to 5 years, depending of the specific objective and characteristics of the system.

Life Time

Lifetime of EWS is typically long; however it depends on financing available for EWS maintenance and updating as well as for the maintenance of the measurement network supporting the early warning system.

Reference information


Published in Climate-ADAPT Sep 03 2016   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Nov 07 2023

Document Actions