How vulnerable is Austria?

In order to cope with the consequences of climate change, it is necessary to assess the vulnerability of individual sectors and regions. Vulnerability refers to the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes (IPCC 2007).


Evidence regarding vulnerability provides a substantial basis for assessing the need, nature, scope, and urgency of adaptation measures.


The nature, degree, and spatial characteristics of climate change impacts are highly dependent on the specific vulnerability of a region, a system, or a sector (e.g., agriculture or forestry) to climate change. In order to evaluate the need, nature, scope, and urgency of adaptation activities and planning measures, sufficient information on vulnerability is required.


The Austrian Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change outlines the vulnerability of eleven areas for action. This assessment is based on existing scientific studies and is described qualitatively.

The vulnerability of the following areas for action is summarized below:

  • Agriculture
  • Forestry
  • Water Resources/Water Management
  • Tourism
  • Energy
  • Construction and Housing
  • Health
  • Natural Ecosystems and Biodiversity
  • Transportation Infrastructure
  • Economy
  • Cities – Urban Green and Open Spaces


Agriculture is one of the sectors most affected by climate change; however, estimates of the vulnerability must take due account of the form of production and the respective region.


For farming, the response potential to changing conditions is generally viewed as rapid due to its relatively short (i.e., one-year) cultivation period. However, because of the long lead times required in seed production, the range of responses is reduced. Conclusions on the sector’s actual vulnerability are possible only through a regionally differentiated investigation. In particular, regions that are already experiencing low levels of precipitation are classified as highly vulnerable in terms of water supply.


For grasslands, according to current knowledge, high vulnerability is assumed for regions with annual rainfall of 600mm. In regions with permanent grassland on shallow soils and an annual rainfall of 600 to 800mm, supply problems may occur. At higher altitudes, in areas with more than 800mm of precipitation, it can be assumed that the production potential will increase.


For fruit and vegetable cultivation as well as viticulture, a possible expansion of growing areas is expected. Disadvantages may include the possible occurrence of late frosts and extreme weather events such as hail and storms. Quality changes in wine due to higher temperatures and greater climate variability cannot be excluded. Currently, a moderate level of vulnerability is assumed.


The increase in hot days is expected to result in increasing stress in animal husbandry, which may lead to poorer growth rates or deficiencies. The emergence of new pathogens in the animal husbandry sector is still largely unexplored. A reliable estimate of the vulnerability is not possible with current information.


In Austrian fish farming, trout and carp farming dominates. With rising water temperatures, populations of fish species that prefer cold water, especially Salmonidae (such as trout and char) will decline. According to the current state of knowledge, a high level of vulnerability is predicted.


Due to the long-term lifecycles of forests, the forestry sector experiences fundamental difficulties in the development, implementation, and effectiveness of adapted forest management concepts. A generally high vulnerability to climate change is therefore assumed.


The site suitability of forest tree species will change radically. Especially in non-site-adapted coniferous forests at lower and middle altitudes, there is a high level of vulnerability.


Water supply is an important climatic factor influencing productivity and health. The vulnerability of forests and their management with regard to climate-induced drought stress are generally classified as high.


Warming and longer summers favour the proliferation of harmful organisms and their spread to higher altitudes. A warmer climate will permit the spread of new Mediterranean species and invasive harmful organisms. Overall, a significantly higher vulnerability to problems caused by harmful organisms is predicted.


The risk of forest fires may increase; however, the vulnerability is estimated as low.

Water Resources/Water Management

In general, sufficient water resources are available; however, regions that are already experiencing declining groundwater levels, are affected by water scarcity during drought or have limited connections to the public water supply network are highly vulnerable.


Information on the impairment of water quality is still uncertain; theoretically, however, the diminished recharge of groundwater may result in the reduced dilution of pollutants. Furthermore, negative impacts on water quality due to heavy precipitation events, the warming of water, or the warming of water pipes are possible.


If changes arise in the frequency and intensity of extreme events at regional level – which currently cannot be confirmed or excluded on the basis of climate projections – the vulnerability to flooding should be assessed as high.


Based on the current state of knowledge, the vulnerability of populations in rivers and lakes is high due to the temperature-related acceleration of chemical reaction processes and alterations in oxygen levels.


Alpine winter tourism generally has a higher vulnerability than other tourism areas (such as Alpine summer tourism and urban tourism).


For the Alpine winter tourism estimates on actual impacts and vulnerability require regionally differentiated considerations. Overall, regions in low and middle altitudes show a higher vulnerability. Furthermore, regions that are strongly economically dependent on winter tourism will be affected more significantly.


For summer Alpine tourism, in principle a low level of vulnerability can be anticipated. An increasing risk potential may be expected due to the thawing of permafrost, an increase in rock falls, and the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events.


For Austrian lake tourism in the Alpine region, rising water temperatures are generally expected to have positive effects. However, Austria’s only steppe lake, Lake Neusiedl, has a greater vulnerability due to its risk of drying up.


City tourism could in principle benefit from climate change, as an extension of the tourist season with an increase in attractiveness is expected. However, it remains unclear whether the increased heat stress in urban areas will have a negative impact on the summer season.


In this area for action, impacts on power production and supply, energy demand for heating and cooling, and biomass supply can be expected. It can be assumed that by mid-century the energy demand for heating will decrease due to higher average temperatures in winter and more efficient building techniques and thermal rehabilitation measures. In contrast, the energy demand for cooling will increase significantly, leading to load peaks in summer (especially during periods of heat waves).


During heat waves, the productive capacity of thermal power plants may be adversely influenced by reductions in cooling water supply and power efficiency. The production potential of hydropower plants could be at risk due to prolonged low water levels, in particular during summer droughts. The performance of run-of-river plants should improve in winter, but is anticipated to decline in summer. However, according to current knowledge, the vulnerability estimate must be viewed as unreliable.


In the short term, storage power plants will gain in importance, especially during periods of peak electricity demand. Their vulnerability is currently considered low or negligible. Alpine glacier-fed storage power plants must expect decreases in water availability by 2050 due to shrinking ice masses and the resulting reduction in runoff.


Renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly important. Their efficiency is determined primarily by weather and climate and is influenced by climate variability and extreme events. In particular, regional forest biomass production is estimated as highly vulnerable.


From a current perspective, no meaningful conclusions can be drawn as to how the energy mix, energy consumption, production, etc., will change in the future. This impedes definite statements about vulnerability at the current stage. It will be imperative to continually monitor changes with regard to climate sensitivity.

Construction and Housing

In this area for action, climate change will entail changing demands in the design, construction, management, and use of buildings. An increase in summer heat stress will lead to an unfavourable indoor climate and living comfort and thus health risks. Especially in urban areas, the demand for cooling to reduce indoor temperatures is expected to increase significantly.


The increasing risk of small- and large-scale flooding cannot currently be precisely projected. Residential areas located in flood zones, especially in combination with improper building technique and land use, are assessed as highly vulnerable. Furthermore, the dimensions of building- and settlement-related rain and sewer drainage systems may prove inadequate.


Especially in the Alpine region, extreme weather events as well as the thawing of permafrost soils may cause an increase in landslides with a high potential to damage or destroy buildings.


Depending on the location, type of building, building characteristics , and occupancy, vulnerability varies; a uniform classification is generally not possible. For new buildings, adaptation measures can be taken relatively easily, and thus a low level of vulnerability can be assessed. However, the building stock is predominantly classified as highly vulnerable, as adaptation measures are associated with significant structural and financial burdens.


For the area for action of construction and housing, close coordination with spatial planning authorities is necessary. Overall vulnerability can be reduced through appropriate provisions in zoning and development plans with project-specific safety regulations.


The potentially adverse impacts of climate change on human health include both direct and indirect effects. Direct effects refer to impacts on the human body, for example, as the consequence of heat waves or extreme weather events. Indirect effects and risks result from environmental changes. These include improved conditions for vectors of disease pathogens, the possible geographical spread of allergenic plants and animals, and impacts on food and drinking water.


Heat waves can be considered to represent the most important direct impact on the human body, especially in urban areas. In particular, the elderly, people with weakened immune systems, and children are at risk. For these groups, a high level of vulnerability is assumed. For all others, moderate vulnerability can be anticipated when appropriate measures are taken.


The interactions between air pollutants and climate change are numerous. High-pressure weather conditions in the summer can increase ground-level ozone, causing mucous membrane irritation and respiratory problems. Should no measures be taken, a moderate vulnerability is assumed, but vulnerability can be rated as high for risk groups.


Due to projected rising temperatures, the conditions for disease vectors are changing, thus an increase in infectious diseases must be expected. In the field of vector-borne diseases, there are still major knowledge gaps with regard to the effects of climate change. Nevertheless, a high level of vulnerability cannot be ruled out.


Knowledge on the potential geographical proliferation of allergenic plants and animals is also sparse, thus the current vulnerability cannot yet be reliably estimated. Climate change may also affect food security – for example, through the growth of microorganisms in food. Impacts on the microbiological and chemical quality of drinking water and on the availability of drinking water resources may occur as well. Due to high standards in food processing and water quality and supply, vulnerability in these areas can currently be expected to be low for Austria.

Natural Ecosystems and Biodiversity

This area for action has long been compromised by many factors, such as land use, the intensive utilization of agricultural and forest land, and changes in water balance. Climate change represents an additional stressor that may exceed the adaptive capacity of many biological systems and species. Climate change impacts such as shifts in area boundaries to the north and to higher altitudes, changes in the phenology of plants, and changes in animal behaviour are already observable and will likely increase.


Species with a limited ability to migrate and those that are restricted by geographical barriers or the lack of habitat networks are threatened with long-term extinction. In particular, red-listed species, species with low site tolerance, and species that prefer cold and moist habitats are expected to be highly vulnerable.


The shift in site boundaries will alter the number of species and species composition in communities and habitats. Especially wetlands, but also montane perennial, rock, and stone corridors are assessed as highly vulnerable. The Alpine region, with its large number of endemic plants and animals and sites with specific climatic conditions, will be particularly affected.


Generalists will benefit from climate change, while native species will be exposed to a new competitive situation with the invasion of thermophilic species.


Overall, it is assumed that the area for action of natural ecosystems and biodiversity bears a high level of vulnerability that for a considerable number of species and ecosystems can only be reduced in scale through appropriate adaptation measures.

Transportation Infrastructure

Transportation infrastructure is of fundamental importance for a country’s society and economy. In particular, extreme weather events such as torrential rain, floods, storms, ice, heat waves, etc., can impact transport-related infrastructure with consequences ranging from damage to complete destruction. Heat-related material damage, the increased risk of failure of electronic equipment, and also poor concentration of road users can affect traffic safety. An increase in heavy rain events can erode roads and railway lines and cause landslides. The risk of flooding thereby increases and drainage systems may be overburdened. Storms can destroy electrical equipment, and fallen trees may obstruct traffic. The extent to which extreme events will be more prevalent in the future is still afflicted with uncertainty.


A temporary loss in transport connections can significantly impact the regional economy, but it would also affect health care. In particular, for individual Alpine valleys and regions, a high vulnerability is assumed. Because related questions have only been recently considered in research and in practice, there are still significant knowledge gaps. In general, the vulnerability of parts of the transport infrastructure is considered to be high; however, with “climate-proofing”, new construction problems can largely be avoided.


The potential effects of climate change on the economy arise through gradually changing climate parameters such as temperature and precipitation, but are also – much more relevantly – determined by the frequency and intensity of extreme weather periods and events. Companies that are substantially involved in global markets are thereby dependent not only on the local effects of climate change but also on those in other countries.


The vulnerability of the manufacturing sector (production of goods) can be assessed as low to moderate for most areas. For example, the efficiency of production may be directly constrained through climate change, where problems may arise in the availability of necessary raw materials or primary and intermediate products, and the performance and health of employees may be adversely affected. Extreme weather events may result in damages to corporate infrastructure as well as logistics and sales. Networking with other businesses and global markets may lead to sectoral and inter-regional impacts.


As a sector downstream from the manufacturing sector, commerce may be indirectly affected through the chain of production-wholesale-retail-end user; however, direct climate impacts are less likely. Within the supply chain, logistics, supply, and distribution may be directly affected by extreme weather events. Climate and weather parameters can also directly impact operational infrastructure. Dealers who purchase products on the global market can also be affected by climate change impacts in other countries. Working conditions may be adversely impacted by extreme temperature fluctuations or frequent heat waves in summer, reducing both the productivity and motivation of employees and increasing the demand for cooling. Through their consumption behaviour – which may also be altered due to climate change – the end consumers co-determine the results of commerce.


The insurance industry is actively involved in shaping potential adaptation options for the Austrian economy. In the future, the services utilized will be altered by a higher incidence of damages, and there will be a general increase in the demand for insurance products in both the public and private sectors. In those regions that experience an increase in population density, the number of exposed individuals will rise. Challenges such as increasing uncertainty in the predictability of events, the unpredictable accumulation of extreme events, the lack of adaptive flexibility in existing contracts, and insufficient reinsurance capacity on the global market will make the insurance industry a highly vulnerable sector.

Cities – Urban Green and Open Spaces

The effects of climate change on cities and urban spaces are complex and will be determined by economic, ecological, and physical/infrastructural factors. Vulnerability is assessed as high due to high population densities and the concentration of assets and critical infrastructure. Specifically, however, it will be strongly dependent on the type and extent of structural use, urban design, and the integration of urban structures in the environment.


Climate change primarily affects the heat balance of urban spaces. An increase in days of extreme heat stress and heat waves can already be observed in urban areas. Specifically, nocturnal cooling in highly developed and paved residential areas is significantly lower than in green spaces or in rural areas; this can lead to increased strain on the human body. Heat waves have direct and indirect impacts on morbidity and mortality and adversely affect both performance and human well-being.


On hot days and during heat waves, the increased demand for drinking and process water will lead to a change in the water balance, especially in summer. Due to the high degree of surface sealing, the discharge capacity of the existing sewer system may be overwhelmed by increasingly frequent heavy rainfall, potentially increasing the risk of flooding. In general, with an increase in extreme weather events, damage to buildings, infrastructure facilities, roads, and even urban vegetation may occur.


High temperatures and strong solar irradiation may increase air pollution in urban agglomerations. Many air pollutants are the causes of both climate change and health problems.


In urban green and open spaces, the increase in average temperatures will result in a prolonged growing season, temporal changes in developmental phases, and changes in water demand. The proliferation of pests, improved wintering opportunities for harmful organisms, and the increased immigration of thermophilic generalists, alien species as well as allergenic plants and disease vectors may result. With regard to heavy rainfall events the infiltration potential of green spaces will increase in importance. Due to the deterioration of air quality and rising temperatures, the need for fresh-air generation areas and fresh-air corridors will increase.