Ice skating in the Noorderplantsoen, March 2018 Photo by Francis Bijl (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The climate is changing,
slowly but surely

No more
ice skating

Ice skating in the Noorderplantsoen, March 2018 Photo by Francis Bijl (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
For the past two years, Dutch summers have been extremely hot and you can leave the house without a winter coat in November. Are these peaks simply part of the weather, or is climate change happening even faster than we thought?
By Felien van Kooij
8 December om 10:24 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 8 December 2020
om 15:13 uur.
December 8 at 10:24 AM.
Last modified on December 8, 2020
at 15:13 PM.

It’s late November, and if you walk fast enough, you barely even need a coat outside. While most people love these warm autumn days, some wonder whether it isn’t too much of a good thing.

‘I’m only human, so even I enjoy those warm days’, says Maarten Loonen, arctic research at the UG. ‘But once you really start thinking about it, you realise how insane it is that no one is doing anything to stop global warming.’

Maarten Loonen has been studying the behaviour of migratory birds on the island of Svalbard for thirty years, and he’s seen the consequences of global warming with his own eyes. Over the past sixty years, the average temperature on Svalbard has risen by six degrees Celsius. ‘I don’t know for sure whether the increased temperature is actually a problem’, he says. ‘But all the ice on the fjord where I live during the summer has melted.’ 

Natural ice

Loonen sees a link between the changes he’s seen on Svalbard and the changes in the Netherlands. ‘Seeing what happened on Svalbard is terrifying. In the Netherlands, the changes aren’t as extreme. But I’m sure that someone who’s been studying the natural environment here since 1980 has noticed them’, he says. There are almost no insects left, and barely anyone still skates on natural ice. ‘All because it got a little bit warmer.’ 

There are almost no insects left, and barely anyone still skates on natural ice

Loonen says it took a while, but most people in the Netherlands know by now that climate change is man-made. ‘The change is caused by the rapid increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, simply because CO2 retains the heat’, he says. This results in extreme occurrences, like long droughts in the summer.


One such occurrence was the record temperature of 40.9 degrees Celsius in July 2019. Climatologist Richard Bintanja, who works at the UG and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, was surprised to hear how hot it was in the Netherlands. ‘I was on vacation on Sardinia’, he says. ‘That was a shame. If there’s one thing climatologists love, it’s records.’ 

In the Netherlands, temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius are unique. ‘We really weren’t expecting it’, says Bintanja. ‘Breaking a record like is a random process, having to do with natural fluctuations in weather and climate.’

But that same temperature would have been next to impossible in the climate of the 1950s. ‘Global warming means there’s an increased chance we’ll exceed certain levels.’


Bintanja says this also has to do with weather variability. ‘The higher the average temperature, the bigger the outlying peaks in variations around that average’, he explains. That means that a higher average temperature can also results in an increased chance of extremely high or extremely low temperatures. ‘But these record-breaking temperatures are still a random process, and it could just be another thirty years before this record is broken.’

Even though it feels like it just keeps getting warmer, individual occurrences like temperature records cannot be blamed on climate change. ‘The average rise in temperature in the Netherlands is too small to be noticeable’, says Bintanja.

‘It’s easy to blame a hot day on climate change, but the weather is so variable that it’s really not a viable conclusion.’ Bintanja says we’ll only be able to see if the temperature rose more quickly on the long term. ‘Nothing we would conclude right now is statistically sound.’


Loonen has seen how quickly the situation in the Arctic has changes, and he expects this will also happen in the Netherlands. ‘But it’s hard to predict’, he says. Climate models used to work because the climate on earth was so stable that scientists could make their predictions based on relatively consistent data. ‘Now, things are changing so quickly that we can’t predict what’s going to happen next.’

Now, things are changing so quickly that we can’t predict what’s going to happen next

One result of the temperature increase in the Netherlands is the slow disappearance of natural ice. ‘I remember when I could skate on pond behind our house practically every winter. I can’t imagine that now’, says Bintanja. 

The Paris Agreement says that humanity should limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industry 1850 levels. ‘We’re already at 1.1 degrees, and I’m afraid we won’t make it’, says Bintanja. ‘We need to flatten the upward trend in temperature, but we have no way of doing so yet.’

If we fail to meet the requirements set in the climate accords, will the climate in the Netherlands become even more extreme? Bintanja says it will undoubtedly become warmer. We’ll also have more heavy precipitation, and the sea levels will slowly rise as the ice caps melt. ‘More rain might be good for us, but we don’t want half the country to be flooded’, he says.

It’s likely that we’ll be able to take a boat to the North Pole by 2050; by then, all the ice will have melted. ‘The younger generation will live to see this happen. It’s so, so sad.’

Take the lead

That means we need to take the warnings and the changes we see in nature seriously. The Netherlands is behind on a few other countries in this. This is especially interesting considering how fast changes were being made when the pandemic hit. ‘It’s the human spirit’, says Loonen. ‘We’re able to respond quickly to short-term problems, but not to long-term ones.’ 

We’ll able to take a boat to the North Pole by 2050 because all the ice will have melted

‘Solving all the problems would cost billions’, says Loonen. On the short term, we’ll have to create rain catchment areas to ensure we have water during dry periods, and on the long term, we have to invest money in research into hydrogen power. ‘We have to take the lead. We should be proud of our country if and when we’re able to take that step.’ 

Scientists believe that humanity will probably survive climate change. ‘If history teaches us anything, it’s that we’re adaptable’, says Bintanja. ‘We might just suddenly get our butts in gear in 2050 and build up our dikes or, in a last-ditch effort, move people in vulnerable areas to the higher parts in the east of the Netherlands.’

Bintanja is hopeful that people will soon realise that things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to. ‘The inevitability of certain developments will hit us much harder, which means we’ll spring into action’, he says. He’s also seen how much more aware the younger generation is. ‘We’re the generation that messed everything up for them. It’s up to the younger generation to fix it.’