A 117 Degree Day in Portugal: Record-breaking Heat Waves Hit Europe

'Even the most pessimistic models didn't forecast this,' says an Israeli environmental expert, as extreme temperatures and wildfires tear through Europe and Asia

Lee Yaron
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This photo provided by the fire brigade of the Gironde region (SDIS 33) shows a wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France, Saturday.
This photo provided by the fire brigade of the Gironde region (SDIS 33) shows a wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France, Saturday.Credit: /AP
Lee Yaron

An extreme heat wave has washed over Europe over the past few days, with temperatures setting records. Portugal experienced a national high of 47 degrees Celsius (117 Fahrenheit) last week, and firefighters are battling blazes across the continent.

The European Union warned earlier this month that due to climate change, the continent is coping with one of its most difficult years in regard to natural disasters, including droughts and massive fires. The current climate is an average of 1.1 degrees hotter than the pre-industrial era due to human activity. Extreme heat waves, which in the past occurred once per decade, are now 2.8 times more frequent.

According to a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued last August, if the world cannot prevent the planet from rising 1.5 degrees past pre-industrial levels, heat waves are expected to occur over four times more frequently.

Portuguese authorities said a national high in July of 47 degrees Celsius (117 Fahrenheit) was registered in the northern town of Pinhao on Wednesday. Wildfires are raging across the country, with more than 1,000 firefighters worked Saturday alongside ordinary citizens desperate to save their homes after a long week of battling multiple blazes around the country. The fires have been fanned by earlier-than-usual extreme temperatures and drought conditions. The state issued its most severe heat warning ever.

According to authorities, 29 people have been lightly injured in the fires – 12 firefighters and 17 civilians. Portugal's health services reported that over the course of the past week, the country saw 238 deaths excess deaths following the heat wave. Portuguese Health Minister Marta Temido added on Thursday that the health system is facing a particularly worrying week due to the heat wave.

A volunteer uses a tree branch trying to prevent a forest fire from reaching homes in Casal da Quinta, outside Leiria, central Portugal, Tuesday.Credit: Joao Henriques /AP

Neighboring Spain registered more than 300 excess deaths that were attributed to the high temperatures in the first three days of the heat wave.

Britain’s Met Office weather agency also issued its first-ever “red warning” of extreme heat for Monday and Tuesday, when temperatures in southern England are forecast to reach 37 Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit). Britain's highest recorded temperature, from July 2019, was 38.7 Celsius; the country's weather agency forecasts an 80 percent chance that this current heat wave will overtake that record. There is a 50 percent chance, they recorded, that it will hit 40 degrees, or 104 Farenheit, for the first time.

Two years ago, the country's meteorological service presented a hypothetical forecast for Britain's expected temperatures in 2050 in order to demonstrate the effects of climate change to the public. That forecast, supposedly slated for 30 years from now, is expected to hit the country next week.

The government has warned that deaths may occur among otherwise healthy individuals, and not just at-risk populations, and the authorities have requested that the public treat the heat as they would a storm warning.

A sign above a highway in northern England displays an extreme weather advisory.Credit: Owen Humphreys /AP

According to Dr. Amir Givati, from the Tel Aviv University Department of Environmental Studies, "Early forecasts predicted that summer 2022 will be hotter than usual in the northern hemisphere, but in reality, it's hotter than the forecast. Heat waves in Western Europe and even throughout Asia are breaking records this year.

"Even the most pessimistic models didn't expect that the cold British Isles would reach 40 degrees, and that's happening before our eyes," he said, "faster and more powerfully than what we forecasted."

The number of heat waves in Israel is increasing due to climate change as well. The Meteorological Service has warned that over the next three decades, most Israeli cities will see a jump in the number of days with a peak temperature of over 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

In May, a study led by the Environmental Protection Ministry and Tel Aviv University found that about 363 Israelis have died due to heat waves over the past decade, more than previously thought.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg ordered the probe in July, after Haaretz reported that a particularly strong heat wave in May 2020 led to the deaths of some 150 Israelis. The study, the first to connect these hundreds of deaths to heat waves, found that "a sharp and significant increase in mortality occurs in the weeks there were heat waves," and that, on average, "each heat wave in Israel leads to the deaths of 45 people whose lives may have been saved if adequate preparations had been made.”

In France, strong winds and hot, dry weather are frustrating firefighters' efforts to contain a huge wildfire that raced across pine forests in the Bordeaux region Saturday for a fifth straight day. Since Tuesday, over 6,500 people have been evacuated from their homes as the wildfires rage.

Among the worst fires have been in Portugal, where the pilot of a firefighting plane died Friday when his plane crashed while on an operation in the northeast. It was the first fatality in fires in Portugal so far this year, which have injured more than 160 people this week and forced hundreds to be evacuated.

Fire season has hit parts of Europe earlier than usual this year after an unusually dry, hot spring that left the soil parched, and that authorities attribute to climate change. Croatia and Hungary have also fought wildfires this week, as have California and Morocco.

“All heat waves studied so far in Europe are getting warmer," said Robert Vautard of the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute at the Sorbonne University. “As long as greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced to zero, heat waves will continue to intensify, become more frequent and last longer."

In Turkey — the scene of devastating wildfires last summer — local media reported fires in the western province of Izmir and in Hatay, lying between the Mediterranean and the Syrian border. Helicopters, planes and hundreds of firefighters tackled the blazes, the Cumhuriyet newspaper and other media reported.

Fires fed by strong winds and scorching temperatures last year tore through Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean regions, killing at least eight people. The fires led to criticism of the government for its inadequate preparation and response.

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