Europe on alert as unprecedented heatwave approaches
Much of Europe is braced for “dangerous” high temperatures this week, triggering public warnings in France, Spain and Germany as authorities put in place measures to prevent a recurrence of the deadly heatwaves in previous years.
The unusually early surge in temperatures has led to the rescheduling of exams for hundreds of thousands of French students, the opening of so-called cool rooms in government buildings to provide shelter and speed restrictions on parts of Germany’s motorway network amid fears that roads could crack in the sweltering summer heat.
“Hell is coming,” said Spanish meteorologist Silvia Laplana in a tweet showing a time-lapse map of red heat spreading across Spain, where temperatures in some parts are predicted to exceed 40C.
As heatwaves become more frequent and more intense, European governments have stepped up early warning systems and even faced accusations of doing “too much” as they seek to limit the worst health impacts of the heat.
By Tuesday, about half of France was placed on orange alert — the second highest warning — by forecaster Météo France ahead of the arrival of what Accuweather called a “potentially dangerous” heatwave. Others suggested a new French record could be set on Friday, when a high of 45C is predicted in the southern city of Nîmes.
In Spain, the hot, dry and dust-filled air arriving from north Africa would drive temperatures as high as 42C in some areas, according to Spain’s weather service.
Germany, too, is readying for an unusually intense heatwave, with meteorologists predicting temperatures of up to 40C on Wednesday. That would set a German record for June, eclipsing a level set in 1947.
The German authorities have also warned of an increased risk of forest fires, though there is no sign so far of a repeat of last year’s damaging drought — and the resulting closure of parts of the river Rhine to commercial shipping.
Extreme heatwaves are expected to become more frequent owing to climate change, particularly in southern Europe, where the likelihood of heatwaves is already ten times greater than it was during pre-industrial times, according to Friederike Otto, acting director at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford university.
“Heatwaves in Europe are one of the types of extreme events where we see most clearly the impact of man-made climate change,” said Prof Otto.
In France, the surging temperatures have brought back painful memories of the heatwave of August 2003, when more than 15,000 people died of heat-related causes. Authorities are this time keen to be extra cautious, even if it means the opposition accusing the government of doing too much.
France has since put in place a nationwide alert system to warn of hot weather. The health ministry has broadcast warnings on television and radio, and used billboard messages to urge citizens to stay hydrated, avoid overheating and check on elderly or isolated neighbours.
“As you know, at times like these, sick people, pregnant women, infants and elderly people are the most vulnerable. So we must be vigilant with them and have prevention measures in place in order to intervene as quickly as possible,” said President Emmaunuel Macron.
School exams were delayed as a precaution. More than 800,000 high school students were due to take national diploma exams on Thursday and Friday, the two days set to coincide with the peak of the heatwave. They have now been postponed until July to “ensure student safety”.
Meanwhile, at the Women’s World Cup in France, which reaches the quarter-final stage on Thursday, steps were being taken to protect both the players and fans from the sweltering temperatures.
During Monday’s game between Sweden and Canada in Paris, the usual rules were overturned and spectators were allowed to bring their own liquids into the stadium, provided they were unopened. Breaks in play to allow players to cool down will also be introduced if temperature reaches certain levels.