An unprecedented heatwave smashed through June records across much of Europe, disrupted business activity, prompted school closures and buckled tram tracks, in a stark warning of what scientists say is a taste of things to come.
The unusually high temperatures so early in the season have been met with a strong response from governments and health officials, who are becoming better prepared for extreme heat as it becomes more frequent. A heatwave in 2003 contributed to an estimated 35,000 deaths across Europe; now, authorities are quicker to take them seriously.
Scientists expect soaring temperatures in Europe, especially in the south, will become more frequent and more severe owing to global warming and the weakening of the North Atlantic jet stream — the atmospheric current that governs European weather patterns.
“People say: ‘There’s a heatwave you can enjoy the good weather’, but it’s not that funny,” said Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London. “It is the combination of humidity and heat that really gets people,” he added. “The human body, once it reaches a [certain] temperature . . . you get organ failure quite quickly.”
France set a new all-time record, with a temperature of 45.8C in the town of Gallargues-le-Montueux in the south, while four parts of the country were placed on red alert — the highest warning — by authorities. State rail company SNCF has limited train speeds on some lines, fearing rails could buckle.
At the Tricastin nuclear power plant in the Rhône valley, temperatures edged close to 50C in rooms containing heavy machinery, while outside workers rushed between buildings to avoid temperatures in the mid-40s.
“We take this very seriously . . . we make sure that all of our workers are taking regular breaks in air-conditioned rooms and drinking plenty of water,” said Cédrick Hausseguy, the plant’s director.
Sylvain Berrios, mayor of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, a town of around 80,000 south-east of Paris, decided to close schools for children between three and 11 years old on Thursday and Friday, a measure he said affected around 6,000 pupils.
“All the little ones can’t stay confined in the classrooms all day and it’s too hot to let them outside into the playground at lunchtime when it’s 40C,” Mr Berrios told the FT. While the schools are closed, swimming pools have been opened to the public.
“It’s the first time that we’ve had a heatwave so early in the summer,” said Mr Berrios, noting that high temperatures normally begin in mid-July when children are already on holiday.
In Lyon, the third largest city in France, the authorities took widespread precautions with the memory of 2003 in mind. Elderly and more vulnerable people have been asked to register with city authorities and shelters are being prepared for the city’s homeless.
“They say this is as bad as it was in 2003,” said Driss, a taxi driver in Lyon. “I was going to drop my niece off at school this morning but they’ve told everyone that, if we can, to keep our children at home.”
Mr Berrios wishes he was getting more support. “I’d like to see the government accompanying the mayors in their measures — we’ve found ourselves alone in managing the heatwave.”
Others, however, are enjoying the weather. On the banks of the Rhone, hundreds of younger Lyonnais sat out drinking until late at night with temperatures still above 30C. “What else are we to do?” said one girl, laughing with her group of friends.
Germany was hit by record heat on Wednesday, with temperatures reaching 38.6C — a June record that eclipsed the previous high dating back to 1947 — before receding later in the week in most of the country.
Authorities issued warnings for forest fire risk, as well as imposing temporary speed limits on parts of Germany’s motorway system, fearing that scorching road surfaces could break open.
Eccentric behaviour was also on display. A man from Brandenburg was stopped by the police on Wednesday for riding his scooter naked except for the obligatory helmet. His explanation when confronted by a law enforcement was: “Well, it’s hot isn’t it?” He was allowed to continue his journey after putting on a pair of trousers.
Spain has annual heatwaves, giving the preparations an air of normality — although the early start date is new.
In Seville, the city government had already moved up its annual installation of cloth awnings over pedestrian streets in the centre from June to May. And in Palma, on the island of Majorca, police prohibited horse-drawn tourist carriages from circulating between noon and 5pm, fearing for the animals.
In Madrid, construction companies working on Centro Canalejas, a 50,000 square metre project that will house a Four Seasons hotel, instituted a hot weather protocol on Thursday. “When it was 35C on Wednesday, we worked all day, but with it hitting 39C today they told everybody who works outside to go home at 2:30pm,” said Youssef, an electrician on the site who declined to give his last name.
In Poland, June records tumbled as temperatures climaxed on Wednesday at 38.2C. The meteorological institute has issued extreme weather warnings for 13 of Poland’s 16 regions.
Tramlines buckled in Bydgoszcz, and taps in Skierniewice, a midsized town in central Poland, ran dry earlier this month as demand jumped by almost a quarter. Local authorities have asked citizens to restrict their water use.
In a bid to mitigate the sweltering conditions, city authorities have set up drinking fountains and water curtains — pipes spraying a mist of water into the air — for pedestrians to cool off. Mirroring concerns in Germany, officials have also warned drivers that roads could crack as a result of high temperatures.
Reported by Leslie Hook in London, Tobias Buck in Berlin, Harriet Agnew in Paris, David Keohane in Lyon, Ian Mount in Madrid and James Shotter in Warsaw