Europeans shocked by ‘heat apocalypse’ as temperature records fall

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
People cool off in the Trocadero fountains across from the Eiffel Tower as a heatwave with high temperatures continues in Paris, France, August 7, 2018.

PARIS – An unforgiving heat wave in Western Europe laid bare Monday how extreme temperatures will increasingly challenge everyday life, as dozens of heat records were shattered, key sectors were hobbled, and emergency services confronted spreading wildfires and rising death tolls.

In France, officials warned of a “heat apocalypse” as the temperature soared up to 109 degrees (43 Celsius). France’s meteorological service placed a stretch of its Atlantic coast under the highest-possible alert level. More than 15,000 people were evacuated amid wildfires in France.

Wales reported a new all-time high, and Ireland registered its highest air temperature in more than a century, with Britain expecting on Tuesday temperatures of up to 106 degrees (41 Celsius) – far above the record of 101.7 degrees (38.7 Celsius) set in 2019.

British authorities declared a national emergency and for the first time issued a “red extreme” heat warning for large parts of England, as the nation struggled to adapt. In London, workers wrapped the historic Hammersmith Bridge over the River Thames in silver insulation foil to protect the cast-iron spans from cracking. Transit officials advised passengers to stay away and ordered trains to slow down as maintenance crews were on the lookout for steel tracks bending and buckling. Planes were diverted from at least two airports, amid reports of melting runways and roads.

Penny Endersby, the chief operating officer of the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s weather service, called the forecast temperatures “absolutely unprecedented.”

“Our lifestyles and our infrastructure are not adapted to what is coming,” Endersby said.

The heat has been pumped into Europe by a zone of low pressure cut off from atmospheric steering currents west of Portugal. The counterclockwise flow around this low-pressure zone has drawn hot air from northern Africa directly into Western Europe.

After peaking in Western Europe on Tuesday, heat is expected to envelop Germany and Poland and then rebuild over Southern Europe. Much of Italy’s north, which is facing one of its worst droughts in decades, remains under a state of emergency.

Some experts said Europeans are bearing witness to a heat wave unmistakably shaped by human-caused climate change.

“The chances of seeing 40°C [104 Fahrenheit] days in the UK could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence,” Nikos Christidis, a researcher at the Met Office, said in a statement.

While Europe produced some of the most indelible scenes of heat’s impact, other parts of the world were also experiencing intense temperatures. Scorching heat is swelling from the western to the central United States. Salt Lake City soared to 107 degrees Sunday, matching its all-time high. Temperatures as high as 108 degrees reached Glasgow, Mont., not far from the Canadian border.

On Tuesday, temperatures above 100 are forecast across nearly the entirety of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, with record-challenging highs of 108 to 110 degrees projected in Dallas and Oklahoma City. About 40 million Americans are under excessive-heat warnings or heat advisories.

In Europe, the human toll and logistical challenges of extreme heat were becoming increasingly visible, with firefighting services under strain, hospitals preparing for increased admissions, and office work and schools disrupted.

In France, the Interior Ministry announced that it would deploy hundreds of additional firefighters to the regions most severely hit by wildfires, including popular beaches and vacation spots on the country’s west coast. In Spain, authorities said that in many places, the available firefighting planes were already working at capacity.

“Full solidarity with firefighters and disaster victims,” wrote French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne on Twitter. Her Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, on Sunday paid tribute on Twitter to a dead emergency service worker.

Models by Spain’s public Carlos III Health Institute estimate that at least 350 people died during the previous week as a result of the country’s heat – far above the weekly average of about 60 deaths, though in line with the impact of heat episodes in previous years.

The institute reported more than 800 heat-linked deaths last month, when similarly scorching temperatures hit the country and other parts of Europe, with temperatures reaching between 104 and 110 degrees (40 to 43 Celsius).

In Portugal, the Health Ministry said 659 people, mostly elderly, died because of the heat last week, Reuters reported.

The number of fatalities could still rise above the estimates – it sometimes takes days or weeks until authorities have a clear understanding of heat-linked death tolls, which are difficult to estimate in real time.

Authorities warned that the heat would degrade air quality in major urban population centers.

Hospital unions in France and other countries warned that the heat is putting an additional burden on services that were already dealing with a renewed rise in coronavirus-linked hospitalizations in recent weeks.

The U.K. Health Security Agency issued a Level 4 heat alert, its highest level, warning that illness and death could occur “among the fit and healthy.”

Public health officials predicted that thousands of excess deaths could occur, even as some skeptics considered it hype. Conservative Party lawmaker John Hayes told the Telegraph newspaper that “this is not a brave new world but a cowardly new world where we live in a country where we are frightened of the heat.”

But Britain isn’t designed for extreme heat.

Few homes have air conditioning. Instead, houses have traditionally been built to retain heat. Maintenance crews were spreading sand on the highways to keep the roads from melting.

The extreme temperatures forced the diversion of flights from the RAF Brize Norton air base and Luton Airport on Monday. The Royal Air Force said the diversion had “no impact on RAF operations.”

Repairs temporarily suspended all flights at Luton, one of the country’s busiest airports, after a “surface defect” was spotted on its runway. The airport reopened later in the evening.

A Network Rail manager, Jake Kelly, told BBC Radio on Monday morning that the system was under “exceptional stress.”

“Our railway is made up of lots of components, many of them metal, which expand in the heat,” Kelly said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned riders to avoid all public transit, including the London Underground, “unless absolutely necessary.”

The subway becomes a sauna on hot days. The system, parts of which date to the Victorian Age, has never seen temperatures like those that are forecast.

This summer’s heat has revived a debate over how to prepare citizens for the impacts of climate change.

While environmental concerns over the use of air conditioning remain widespread in Europe, with as many as 75% of all French having no air conditioning, it is increasingly seen as a key tool to protect the most vulnerable groups.

After a heat wave killed an estimated 15,000 people in France in 2003, French nursing homes developed emergency plans. Many of them are now equipped with air-conditioned rooms, additional ventilation or sprinklers that cool down building facades.

In Paris, city authorities encouraged residents and tourists to use a dedicated website to find 900 “islands of coolness,” including parks, cemeteries, swimming pools and museums.

The site also points to dedicated “cooling routes” – for example, streets with lush trees – that connect those spaces. Some buildings are using cool water pipes as a more environmentally friendly alternative to air conditioning.

Studies suggest that such measures have brought down heat-related mortality since 2003, which has encouraged more adaptation plans in cities such as Paris. Over the next few years, the French capital wants to plant tens of thousands of additional trees, in the hope that they may help to lower air and surface temperatures in cobblestone squares and asphalt roads that trap heat.

But as climate change progresses, the increasingly brutal heat islands that build up in urban areas could pose risks that may be beyond conventional solutions – even today, the difference in temperatures between Paris and its greener surroundings can at times approach 18 degrees (10 Celsius). People in poorer areas, who are more likely to live in unrenovated buildings and without easy access to green spaces, are particularly affected. Many of the elderly residents who died in recent heat waves in France were at home and not in nursing facilities.

In rural areas, heat waves are expected to have an increasingly serious impact on agricultural production. This year, French farmers have faced a mix of frost, a record-hot May accompanied by a spring drought, and intense hailstorms that brought heavy rain, followed by more drought this summer.

“The drought in much of Europe is critical,” the European Commission’s research branch concluded in a report released Monday, which warned that “a staggering portion of Europe” – about half of European Union and British territory – is now at risk of drought.