Europe’s heat waves offer a bleak view of the future


Portugal, whose bucolic The landscape reveals rolling hills dotted with olive trees and centuries-old stone villages, has become a landscape of fear this summer. When a heat wave began to sweep across the country in early July, residents were forced indoors to shelter behind closed shutters while outside the heat continued to cook forests and crops already parched by prolonged drought.

Aided by fast winds and dry conditions, the intense heat has sparked dozens of wildfires across the country and in neighboring Spain. Portuguese farmers fled the flames carrying sheep on the back. Near the Quinta do Lago golf resort in the south, drivers had to turn back because flames and smoke swirled on the highways. Even in areas not directly affected by the flames, such as the coastal city of Aveiro, residents struggled to breathe as the smoke the raging fires a few miles to the east enveloped certain neighborhoods. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes across the country.

As fires burned across Portugal, the scorching heat broke records. In Pinhão, a picturesque village perched on the banks of the Douro River in north-central Portugal, temperatures reached 47.2 degrees Celsius, according to reports from the Portuguese Institute of Sea and Atmosphere.

Presumed heat-related deaths have started to rise. Last week, Spanish health authorities reported a total of 3,833 additional deaths linked to summer heat waves. Similar figures have not yet been released for Portugal, but at the height of its first heat wave, between July 7 and July 18, the Portuguese Ministry of Health reported that there were 1,063 deaths from more than expected for this period.

Even though crews managed to contain some of Portugal’s worst wildfires, the heat continued to bake the northeast of the country, as well as much of Spain and parts of France, Greece and Turkey. The severe weather then spread north to the UK, where the Met Office issued its first-ever red warning for exceptional heat in the usually cool and wet country, urging residents to prepare for temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius, a record first. for England who arrived a few days later.

“Temperatures soaring into the mid-40s don’t happen too often, even in Spain or Portugal,” says Paul Hutcheon of the UK Met Office. Luton Airport, which serves London, had to temporarily suspend flights after part of its runway buckled in the heat, while fires broke out across the country.

“The infrastructure is simply not designed for temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius,” says Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. “Buildings, schools and hospitals are neither air-conditioned nor insulated. The houses have no shutters or anything to keep out the heat. People are unaware of the dangers of heat and they don’t know how to deal with it.

Although heat waves have occurred occasionally in Europe, they are becoming much more frequent and intense, and last longer. And climate change is largely responsible. When a heat wave swept through Europe in 2019, Otto, who co-leads World Weather Attribution, a research collaboration that analyzes the contribution of climate change to extreme weather events, immediately conducted an assessment with his team to see if it could detect the fingerprints of global warming. They did: Climate change made high temperatures five times more likely, they found.


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