Europe gets a touch of the tropics as record heat bites

Residents will remember the summer of 2022 as one of the hottest they can recall



Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli

Published: Mon 8 Aug 2022, 8:20 PM

Like many places across the world, Europe has experienced a torrid, dry summer this year.

Countries in the south of the continent sweltered, but they are more used to the summer heat. In the north, the temperature rise seems to have been felt most. The UK set records by hitting 40°C – sending the notoriously weather-conscious Brits scampering for relief.

It appears climate change arrived sooner than predicted. From summers that begin earlier and last longer to warmer climes in the north and huge impacts on food production, heat in Europe could to have a profound effect on even traditions, cultures and ways of life.

Is this summer the harbinger of a new reality in Europe? Some scientists say the continent is actually one of the zones most affected by the changing climate.

Tourism is a most timely case in point. After two cancelled peak holiday seasons due to the Covid pandemic, this summer Europe, the world’s most popular tourist destination, threw open its gates to travellers – and chaos. Staffing issues might have been mostly responsible for snarled transport, but the heat contributed.

With asphalt literally melting, some airport runways were closed and trains delayed due to expanding rails. More than 20 weather stations in France recorded their highest-ever temperatures while wildfires blazed in tourist regions of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.

The rising temperatures not only make travel more difficult but also create a different business environment. The summer travel calendar could stretch from April until October and reach destinations further north. Could Rome and Athens lose out to Stockholm and Helsinki?

And it isn’t just famed cities in the Mediterranean region. The most visited city in the world, Paris, suffered from extreme heat exacerbated by the city’s relatively sparse greenery. With just 10 per cent of Paris covered in green – compared to 33 per cent in London – the “heat island” effect sends temperatures over 40°C. Sometimes well over. A published report said the temperature outside the Garnier Opera house in Paris was measured at 56°C during the latest heatwave.

This year, tourists who felt locked up for two previous years were determined to travel no matter the challenges. But that won’t always be the case.

The dry heat has also had a huge impact on agriculture. If it continues, the changing climate could affect the legendary diet of some Europeans. In Italy, along with pasta, no staples are more important than olive oil or bread. Italian aficionados are already noticing there will need to be an even greater commitment to sourcing fresh bread daily – in this summer’s heat they found the beloved fresh loaves had even less of a shelf life. Even freezing and thawing when needed did not preclude premature hardness.

And though olive oil can survive fine in the warmer weather, the mother fruit is not faring so well. Italian producers say there will be 30 per cent fewer olives than in 2021, while the tomato harvest will also fall. A lingering drought in the Po River valley and other locales is to blame.

Italy's largest agricultural union, Coldiretti, said the drought threatens more than 30 per cent of the country’s agricultural production and half of the farms in the Po valley.

The heat might not directly affect Europe’s renowned fashion industry this summer, but the battle against climate change does. According to industry studies, the fashion industry is responsible for 4 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, an amount equivalent to the emissions from France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.

Most of the real impacts from fashion are created upstream in the supply chain, often in poorer countries whose workers are also more vulnerable to natural phenomena, including torrid temperatures and catastrophic weather events. Dyeing and leather tanning are seen as particularly damaging to the environment, polluting precious clean water.

But the heat did have a direct impact on the vulnerable in Europe itself this summer. According to data from a range of countries, Europe recorded thousands of additional deaths during last month’s heat wave.

In Germany, where temperatures hit 4°C as far north as Hamburg, experts believe an increase in fatalities above even the pandemic numbers was due to hot weather, even though the northern European country does not even have a listing for heat as a cause of death.

“The problem is that unlike with Covid, heat is not recorded as a factor in a person’s death,” said Stefan Muthers from the German Weather Service.

A co-author of a study on heat-related mortality in Germany, Muthers believes a link between last month’s surges in deaths and scorching temperatures is highly likely.

But hotter countries do track heat-related mortality. For the period from July 11 to 24, Spain had 1,682 heat-related deaths while Portugal’s health chief Graça Freitas said more than 1,000 people had died between July 7 and 18.

And as the sun blazed, many European countries were forced to turn off their legendary urban fountains due to drought.

Residents will remember the summer of 2022 as one of the hottest they can recall. If the trend continues, Europe will have a new component in its renowned ambiance – a touch of the tropics.

Now for a nice refreshing aperitif – with plenty of ice, please.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy


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