Friday 20 September 2019

Europeans wilt in blazing temperatures as heatwave from Sahara sets records

New highs were reached in several European countries.

Children play in a water fountain in Antwerp, Belgium (Virginia Mayo/AP)
Children play in a water fountain in Antwerp, Belgium (Virginia Mayo/AP)

By Angela Charlton and Kirsten Grieshaber, Associated Press

Temperature records that had stood for decades or even just days fell minute by minute on Thursday afternoon and Europeans and tourists alike threw themselves into fountains, lakes, rivers or the sea to escape a suffocating heat wave rising up from the Sahara.

On a day that no one on the continent will ever forget, two potential drug dealers in Belgium even called the police, begging to be rescued from the locked container they managed to get themselves trapped in.

It was nearly impossible to keep up with the falling records as temperatures climbed higher and higher under a brutal sun, in Paris, Belgium, London, Germany, the Netherlands, all places where air conditioning is not typically installed in homes, cafes or stores.

A boat sails as sunbathers relax during a hot summer day at the beach in De Haan, Belgium (Francisco Seco/AP)

Even office air-conditioning systems strained under the hot, dry weather that was trapped between two stormy weather systems.

Electric fans sold out across Paris and traditional folding fans made a comeback on the city’s stuffy Metro.

Still, the atmosphere was buoyant, as people sought to stay cool yet embrace the heat blast from the south.

Katy James, visiting Paris from Chicago, was one of the lucky ones to have a room with air conditioning but she was still out in the streets, enjoying the atmosphere.

“We’ve had such a good time. The Parisians have been so accommodating. We’ve been getting water where ever we go. We got to play in the fountain. This was amazing,” Ms James said.

As emissions continue to warm the planet, scientists say there will be more and hotter heat waves, although it’s too early to know whether this hot spell is linked to man-made climate change.

A woman protects her face from the sun with a fan while walking along a street during a hot summer day, in Pamplona, northern Spain (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

“There is likely the DNA of climate change in the record-breaking heat that Europe and other parts of the world are experiencing. And it is unfortunately going to continue to worsen,” said Marshall Shepherd, professor of meteorology at University of Georgia.

Climate scientists warn this could become the new normal in many parts of the world but it looms as a giant challenge for temperate Europe.

French authorities have been particularly wary, since a 2003 heat wave killed nearly 15,000 people, many of them elderly people alone in stiflingly hot apartments. So as tourists frolicked in fountains, authorities and volunteers in both Paris and London fanned out to help the elderly, sick and homeless, opening centres for them to rest, cool down and shower.

People collect water from the public fountain in front of the Pantheon in Rome (Andrew Medichini/AP)

“They are in the street all day, under the sun. No air conditioning, no way to protect oneself from the heat,” said Ruggero Gatti, an IT worker joining other Red Cross volunteers handing out water bottles, soup and yogurt to the homeless in the Paris suburb of Boulogne.

France’s heat alert system went to its maximum level of red for the first time during last month’s heat wave, when France saw its highest-ever recorded temperature of 46C.

On Thursday, about one-fifth of French territory was under a red alert, stretching from the English Channel through the Paris region and down to Burgundy and affecting at least 20 million people.

French health minister Agnez Buzyn said temperatures on Thursday were expected to be two degrees higher than in the deadly 2003 heat wave.

A boy jumps into the water at the beach in Barcelona, Spain (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Trains were cancelled in Britain and France, and French authorities urged travellers to stay home.

Messages to “Hydrate yourselves!” blared from the radio, TV and public message boards.

The sheer levels of heat on Thursday afternoon were nothing short of astonishing:

— The Netherlands’ meteorological institute announced a record that beat the previous record set just a day ago: 40.4C (104.7F) Thursday in the municipality of Gilze Rijen, near the border with Belgium.

— In Belgium, the new all-time high rose to 40.6C (105.1F) in Kleine Brogel.

“This is the highest recorded temperature for Belgium in history since the beginning of the measurements in 1833,” said Alex Dewalque of the country’s Royal Meteorological Institute.

— In the northern German town of Lingen, a new national record temperature of 42C (107.6 F) was set in the afternoon, breaching the previous high set just minutes earlier.

It was not clear how long that record would last.

A day earlier, Germany had also set a record of 40.5C (104.9F) in Geilenkirchen near the Belgian border.

People cool off in Bayonne, southwestern France (Bob Edme/AP)

The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment issued a “smog alarm” for areas including the densely populated cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague due to high ozone levels.

In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, some communities painted vital rail tracks white in hopes the light colour would bring down the temperature by a few degrees and the tracks would not get warped by the heat.

German railways Deutsche Bahn said passengers who had booked tickets for Thursday or Friday and wanted to delay their trips could do so without charge.

A man cools off in a public fountain near the Atomium in Brussels (Francisco Seco/AP)

In Cologne in western Germany, volunteers offered free water to passers-by while others sunbathed on the dried-up banks of the Rhine River.

In Bavaria’s prisons, inmates were getting cold cucumber soup, fruit and yoghurt for lunch and more water than normal.

In Austria, a two-year-old died of dehydration on Wednesday in the country’s Styria region after he climbed into an overheated parked car without his family noticing.

As intense as it was, the heat was expected to be short, with temperatures forecast to drop Friday and Saturday.

PA Media

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