Europeans fought to stay cool as a blast of hot air from the Sahara desert sent temperatures to records in large parts of the continent and whipped up concern about climate change.
Germany imposed speed restrictions on usually limit-free stretches of its highway network and several people were stopped by police for stripping in public. About 60% of vehicles registered in the Paris area were ordered off the roads, while shops in the French capital ran out of fans and air conditioners, rarely used by most residents. In Rome, keepers at the city’s zoo fed animals frozen treats.
“Hell is coming,” tweeted TV meteorologist Silvia Laplana from Spain, where temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and authorities warned of an “extreme” risk of forest fires.
Thursday is set to mark the peak of the current hot spell in Europe, the World Meteorological Organization said. Weather watchers blame climate change for bringing air from the Sahara desert into Western Europe. Last year, a similar effect triggered “The Beast from the East” cold snap by allowing winds from Siberia to blow much further to the west than usual. Above-average temperatures in February and a cold spell in May were also blamed on the so-called jet-stream disturbances.
“This increase in heat extremes is just as predicted by climate science as a consequence of global warming caused by the increasing greenhouse gases from burning coal, oil and gas,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, co-chair of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
Extreme weather is fueling debate in Europe, where climate strikers led by Greta Thunberg — a 16-year-old Swedish activist — have taken to the streets and environmentalist parties are rising in the polls. Wildfires in Sweden, increasingly violent storms in the Mediterranean and the drying up of the Rhine river have created disquiet over extreme weather events.
Concern the heat wave would further damage Alpine glaciers that feed European rivers like the Rhine increased Wednesday as Switzerland’s meteorological agency said the 2,501-meter Saentis mountain in the eastern canton of St. Gallen recorded its highest daily minimum temperature of 16 degrees Celsius.
In the German town of Coschen near the Polish border, temperatures reached 38.6 Celsius Wednesday, breaking the country’s 1947 record for June, forecaster DWD said. Across Germany, 51 weather stations broke June temperature records.
Forecasts for temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius raised fears of potentially deadly cracks on Autobahn surfaces, prompting the imposition of speed restrictions. Police in the German state of Brandenburg on Wednesday halted a moped rider who was naked apart from sandals and a crash helmet. That followed an incident Tuesday when a 32-year-old man in rural Germany ran naked through the freezer section of a supermarket to cool off. DWD issued ultraviolet ray warnings for all but Germany’s most northern states.
In the French city of Nice on the Mediterranean, overnight temperatures didn’t fall below 26 degrees Celsius, the highest minimum on record for the city, forecaster Meteo-France said. In Clermont-Ferrand, where tire maker Michelin is headquartered, temperatures rose to 40.9 Celsius, the highest since records began being kept in the city in 1923, according to the weather agency. Seventy eight of the 96 departments in France — where 15,000 people, mostly the elderly, died in the 2003 heat wave — were put on alert for extreme heat.
With temperatures in Paris in the 30s, air conditioners sold out on Friday at a Fnac Darty SA outlet near the Montparnasse train station, and on Saturday morning most customers could be seen walking out with fans. Sales of air-cooling devices reached their highest in at least two decades, a company executive told Europe 1 radio on Tuesday.
The hot spell rippled through European power markets. Electricity prices across the continent surged on expectations Europeans would turn on fans and air conditioning units to keep cool. European Union permits to emit carbon dioxide — a major input for electricity prices — rose to their highest levels since April.
In Milan, where a surge in power usage hit a record on June 19, the local municipal power company A2A said it expects demand to rise further. It asked residents to use home appliances like dishwashers in the evening and switch off lights, computers and televisions when not needed.
Brussels has suspended horse-and-carriage rides for tourists. The decision was taken out of respect for the animals’ welfare, said Fabian Maingain, the Belgian city’s chief for economic affairs, told Le Soir newspaper. Similar decisions have been taken by Antwerp and Ostend.
Rising temperatures are stoking political tensions and buffeting companies. In Sweden, airlines face boycotts from travelers citing Flygskam, a Swedish neologism denoting “shame about flying due to climate change concerns.” Over the weekend, German police forcibly removed protesters who stormed an open-pit coal mine owned by German utility RWE, Europe’s biggest corporate emitter of carbon dioxide.
“Nothing less than our future is at stake,” said Nike Malhaus, spokeswoman for protest group Ende Gelaende. “We are taking the coal phaseout into our own hands, because the government is failing to protect the climate.”