Europe’s heatwaves offer a bleak vision of the future

Portugal, its rural Landscape of rolling hills dotted with olive trees and centuries-old stone villages turned into a landscape of fear this summer. When a heatwave began to sweep the country in early July, residents were forced to hide indoors as best they could behind drawn shutters, while outside the heat continued to burn out forests and crops already parched by a prolonged drought.

Aided by fast winds and dry conditions, the intense heat sparked dozens of wildfires across the country and neighboring Spain. Portuguese peasants fled the flames carrying sheep on their backs. Motorists had to turn around near the Quinta do Lago golf resort in the south Flames and smoke swirled across freeways. Even in areas not directly affected by the flames, like the coastal city of Aveiro, residents struggled to inhale the smoke Fires are raging a few kilometers to the east enveloped some parts of the city. Thousands were evacuated from their homes across the country.

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

Suspected heat-related deaths began to pile up. Last week, Spanish health authorities reported a total of 3,833 additional deaths linked to the summer’s heatwaves. Similar figures have not yet been released for Portugal, but at the peak of its first heat wave between July 7 and 18, Portugal’s health ministry said there were 1,063 more deaths than would have been expected for the period.

Even as crews managed to contain some of Portugal’s worst wildfires, the heat continued to simmer the north-east of the country, as well as much of Spain and parts of France, Greece and Turkey. The extreme weather then spread north into Britain, where the Meteorological Office issued its first red warning of exceptional heat in the normally cool, wet country, urging residents to brace for temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius – a record-breaking one Premiere for England, which arrived a few days later.

“Jumps in temperature into the mid-40s don’t happen very often, even in Spain or Portugal,” says Paul Hutcheon of the UK Met Office. Luton Airport, which serves London, has 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 of up to 40 degrees Celsius,” says Friederike Otto, climate researcher at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment. “Buildings, schools and hospitals are neither air-conditioned nor insulated. The houses don’t have shutters or anything to keep out the heat. People are unaware of the dangers of the heat and don’t know how to deal with it.”

Although heat waves have occasionally occurred in Europe, they are becoming more frequent, more intense and longer lasting. And climate change is largely to blame. When a heatwave swept across Europe in 2019, Otto — who is co-leader of World Weather Attribution, a research collaboration analyzing the contribution of climate change to extreme weather events — immediately conducted an assessment with her team to see if they could find the fingerprints of global warming. They did: Climate change has made high temperatures five times more likely, they found.

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