Record heat wave in Europe; thousands flee wildfires in France, Spain

WEATHER NEWS: Record heat wave in Europe; thousands flee wildfires in France, Spain


LONDON — “BRITAIN IS MELTING,” one front page here read Tuesday, as record heat and raging wildfires in France and Spain brought the toll of extreme temperatures up close for many Europeans.

As the heat wave moved across the continent, Germany and Belgium also issued heat alerts, while firefighters battled to contain flames that have scorched land in Portugal for days.

The United Kingdom’s weather service declared Tuesday the hottest day on record in Britain, where many schools closed and subway authorities urged commuters to avoid unnecessary travel. London Heathrow was among six locations to reach 104 degrees (40 Celsius) on Tuesday, shattering Britain’s all-time temperature record after the country declared a national emergency, well above the 2019 record of 101.7 degrees (38.7 Celsius).

The new provisional record holder is Coningsby, about 129 miles north of London. The high there hit 104.5 degrees, or 40.3 degrees Celsius.

After 363 years tracking summer heat, U.K. sees an all-time high

“Earth sends a warning,” another British headline read — a nod to the warnings from scientists of the challenge that climate change poses to daily life. Rail temperatures threatened to break the tracks, suspending train traffic. And London’s ambulance service prepared for a surge in emergency calls for fainting and heat exposure.

Hundreds of deaths have been attributed to the heat in Spain and Portugal since last week, and wildfires have forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes there, as well as in France.

In Spain, where the flames burned through tens of thousands of hectares, footage showed one man emerging from a towering orange blaze in the Zamora province, with his clothes on fire. He ran through a field from the flames that engulfed his excavator.

These maps show how excessively hot it is in Europe and the U.S.

Train services halted Tuesday between the capital, Madrid, and Galicia to the northwest because of a fire close to the tracks, transportation authorities said.

A “very extreme” fire danger extended as far north as eastern England because of the combination of excessively hot and dry weather, according to Copernicus, a climate monitoring service of the European Union. Sky News reported firefighters were battling at least 10 blazes around London.

A Spanish man fleeing a wildfire had a close brush with death on July 18 when the blaze engulfed his excavator in Zamora, Spain. (Video: Reuters)

In southwestern France, wildfires have destroyed at least 19,000 hectares. Flames were still billowing in Gironde early Tuesday after more firefighters were dispatched to region on the west coast, which is lined with popular beaches and vacation spots. Authorities said about 37,000 people had evacuated their homes over the past week.

Temperatures in France soared as high as 108.8 degrees (42.7 Celsius) Monday, as dozens of locations set all-time highs. Towns and cities on the Atlantic coast got some respite early Tuesday, when a cool oceanic air mass arrived from the west overnight. The French meteorological agency lifted the “red” alert level on 15 areas and said the atmosphere was becoming “much more breathable.”

How to stay safe in extreme heat

Still, “the heat wave is shifting to the east of the country,” the Meteo-France agency added, and 70 other regions remained under an “orange” heat alert level. Maximum temperatures were expected to reach 95 to 104 degrees (35 to 40 Celsius).

The record-shattering temperatures all over Britain sparked calls for action as some experts pointed to the role of human-influenced climate change.

“Climate change driven by greenhouse gases has made these extreme temperatures possible,” said Stephen Belcher, chief of science and technology at the Met Office after Britain breached 40 Celsius for the first time. “We’re actually seeing that possibility now.”

Belcher said temperatures this hot could occur every three years in Britain if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed.

The United Kingdom not only posted its highest maximum daytime temperatures on record, but also its maximum overnight temperatures — with some locations not dipping below the upper 70s (25 to 26 Celsius). The lack of nighttime cooling was of grave concern to health officials as only a tiny percentage of British homes have air-conditioning.

“Look out for others, especially older people, young children and babies and those with underlying health conditions,” the Met Office advised. “Close curtains on rooms that face the sun to keep indoor spaces cooler and remember it may be cooler outdoors than indoors”

Why this European heat wave is so scary

At a meeting in Berlin, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Monday in a remote address that world leaders faced a stark choice on climate change, noting that people in Africa, South Asia and Central and South America were 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather events.

“Collective action or collective suicide,” he told government representatives. “It is in our hands.”

The heat wave originated from a sprawling area of high pressure over Western Europe, also known as a heat dome. The heat dome ballooned unusually far north because of a low pressure system west of Portugal, whose circulation pumped in hot air from northern Africa.

In addition to the excessively hot weather in Britain and eastern parts of France on Tuesday, record-challenging heat was also predicted for Belgium, the Netherlands and western Germany.

By Wednesday, the core of the heat is forecast to focus over central and eastern Germany, Poland and southern Scandinavia as the heat dome is nudged eastward.

From Friday into the weekend, a new heat dome will build over southern Europe with extremely high temperatures over Spain, France and Italy, which have already endured multiple bouts of punishing heat this summer.

Timsit reported from Paris. Samenow reported from Washington.

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