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WEATHER

Europe swelters under record-breaking heatwave

Forest fires are raging, animals are suffering and humans are sweating as Europe grapples with one of the most intense heatwaves ever recorded.

Beachgoers shelter under the shade of an umbrella in southern France.
Beachgoers shelter under the shade of an umbrella in southern France. (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ / AFP)

France and other western European nations on Saturday sweltered under a blistering June heatwave that has sparked forest fires and concerns that such early summer blasts of hot weather will now become the norm.

The weather on Saturday was the peak of a June heatwave that is in line with scientists’ predictions that such phenomena will now strike earlier in the year thanks to global warming.

The French southwestern town of Biarritz, one of the country’s most sought-after seaside resorts, saw its highest all time temperature Saturday of 41 degrees, state forecaster Meteo France said.

Queues of hundreds of people and traffic jams formed outside aquatic leisure parks in France, with people seeing water as the only refuge from the devastating heat.

With the River Seine off limits to bathing, scorched Parisians took refuge in the city’s fountains.   

Temperatures in France could reach as high as 42C in some areas on Saturday, Meteo France said, adding that June records had already been beaten in 11 areas on Friday.

“This is the earliest heatwave ever recorded in France” since 1947, said Matthieu Sorel, a climatologist at Meteo France.

With “many monthly or even all-time temperature records likely to be beaten in several regions,” he called the weather a “marker of climate change”.

Forest fires rage

In a major incident in France, a fire triggered by the firing of an artillery shell in military training in the Var region of southern France was burning some 200 hectares (495 acres) of vegetation, local authorities said.

“There is no threat to anyone except 2,500 sheep who are being evacuated and taken to safety,” said local fire brigade chief Olivier Pecot.

The fire came from the Canjeurs military camp, the biggest such training site in Western Europe. Fire services’ work was impeded by the presence of non-exploded munitions in the deserted area but four Canadair plans have been deployed to water bomb the fires.

Farmers in the country are having to adapt.

Daniel Toffaloni, a 60-year-old farmer near the southern city of Perpignan, now only works from “daybreak until 11.30am” and in the evening, as temperatures in his tomato greenhouses reach a sizzling 55 degrees C.

Forest fires in Spain on Saturday had burned nearly 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of land in the north-west Sierra de la Culebra region.

The flames forced several hundred people from their homes, and 14 villages were evacuated.

Some residents were able to return on Saturday morning, but regional authorities warned the fire “remains active”.

Firefighters were still battling blazes in several other regions, including woodlands in Catalonia.

Temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) were forecast in parts of the country on Saturday — with highs of 43 degrees C expected in the north-eastern city of Zaragoza.

There have also been fires in Germany, where temperatures topped 40C on Saturday. A blaze in the Brandenburg region around Berlin had spread over about 60 hectares by Friday evening.

Foretaste of future

Dutch authorities said they expect Saturday to be the hottest day of the year so far.

The UK recorded its hottest day of the year on Friday, with temperatures reaching over 30 degrees C in the early afternoon, meteorologists said.

“I think at the moment people are just enjoying it being hot but if it gets any hotter than this, which I think it is meant to, then that’s a concern,” said Claire Moran, an editor in London.

Several towns in northern Italy have announced water rationing and the Lombardy region may declare a state of emergency as a record drought threatens harvests.

Italy’s dairy cows were putting out 10 percent less milk, the main agricultural association, Coldiretti, said Saturday.

With temperatures far above the cows’ “ideal climate” of 22-24C, animals were drinking up to 140 litres of water per day, double their normal intake, and producing less due to stress, it said.

Experts warned the high temperatures were caused by worrying climate change trends.

“As a result of climate change, heatwaves are starting earlier,” said Clare Nullis, a spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva.

“What we’re witnessing today is unfortunately a foretaste of the future” if concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise and push global warming towards 2 degrees C from pre-industrial levels, she added.

Member comments

  1. Climate change is impacting Europe now but both Africa and Asia experience worse conditions.

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ENVIRONMENT

Drought forces water use rethink in Spain

Faced with a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking how it spends its water resources

Drought forces water use rethink in Spain

Faced with a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking how it spends its water resources, which are used mainly to irrigate crops.

“We must be extremely careful and responsible instead of looking the other way,” Spain’s Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said recently, about the impact of the lack of rain.

Like France and Italy, Spain has been gripped by several extreme heatwaves this summer after an unusually dry winter.

That has left the country’s reservoirs at 40.4 percent of their capacity in August, 20 percentage points below the average over the last decade for this time of the year.

Officials have responded by limiting water use, especially in the southern region of Andalusia, which grows much of Europe’s fruits and vegetables.

Reservoir water levels in the region are particularly low, just 25 percent at most of their capacity.

“The situation is dramatic,” said University of Jaen hydrology professor Rosario Jimenez, adding both underground aquifers and surface bodies of water were running low.

The situation is especially worrying since it is part of a long-term trend linked to climate change, she added.Parts of Spain are the driest they have been in a thousand years due to an atmospheric high-pressure system driven by climate change, according to a study published last month in the journal, Nature Geoscience.

Greenpeace estimates that 75 percent of the country is susceptible to desertification.

‘Overexploitation’ 

Spain has built a vast network of dams to provide water for its farms and towns. During the 20th century, 1,200 large dams were built in the country, the highest number in Europe per capita.

This has allowed Spain to increase the amount of irrigated land it has from 900,000 hectares (2,224,000 acres) to 3,400,000 hectares, according to the ecological transition ministry’s website, which calls the country’s water management system “an example of success”.

But many experts say the system is now showing its limits.

The dams “had their use” but they have also encouraged the “overexploitation” of water and the decline in its quality by blocking the natural course of rivers, said Julio Barea, a water expert at Greenpeace Spain.

For the scientific council of the Rhone-Mediterranean Basin Committee, a French body which groups hydrology specialists, Spain is nearing the “physical limits” of its water management model.

Spain’s network of dams relies on sufficient rainfall to replenish its many reservoirs, it said.

But “the climate changes already under way, which will continue in the decades to come, will increase the risk of failures,” the body said in a recent report.

Experts say the way Spain uses water is also a major problem.”Consumption has not stopped increasing while water is becoming increasingly scarce. It’s an aberration,” said Barea.

‘Europe’s vegetable garden’

Spain is the second most visited country in the world and significant amounts of water are used in tourism infrastructure like swimming pools and golf courses.

But agriculture absorbs the bulk — over 80 percent — of the country’s water resources.

It is sometimes used to grow crops that are not suitable for a dry climate — such as strawberries or avocados — for export to other European countries. Spain’s use of irrigation “is irrational,” said Julia Martinez, biologist and director of the FNCA Water Conservation Foundation.

“We cannot be Europe’s vegetable garden” while “there are water shortages for the inhabitants,” she added.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government adopted a strategic plan last month to adapt Spain’s water management system to “the impacts of global warming”.

It includes measures to promote water recycling and “efficient and rational” uses of resources. But specialists say that reforms remain timid, with many regions continuing to increase the amount of irrigated land.

“We need more drastic measures,” said Barea, who called for a restructuring of the agriculture system.

Martinez shares this view, saying Spain is currently the European nation “exerting the most pressure on its water resources.”

“Today there are decisions that no one wants to take. We can’t continue to blindly forge ahead,” she said.

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