A devasting heat wave inflicted life-threatening temperatures on Europe and shattered all-time highs in several countries on Thursday.
Temperatures in Paris reached a jaw-dropping 108.7 degrees Fahrenheit (42.6 Celsius) in the later afternoon local time, according to Météo-France, the national weather service, breaking the previous record of 104.7F (40.4C) set in 1947.
The inferno began Wednesday in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, where many record high temperatures were set. But some of these records stood for only one day and were beaten on Thursday, when temperatures climbed even higher from France north into Britain and eastward to Germany.
London experienced its hottest day ever recorded in July, with temperatures recorded at 98.2 degrees (36.9°C), according to figures from the Met Office.
“No one is safe in such temperatures,” said Agnès Buzyn, France’s health minister. “This is the first time that this affects departments in the north of the country . . . populations that are not accustomed to such heat.”
“Heat waves are a serious problem for older and ill people,” Anton Hofreiter, leader of Germany’s Green Party in parliament, told Der Spiegel. He said Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was not doing enough to support those affected and cited France as a role model.
It took 10 minutes for a chocolate Eiffel Tower to melt in the Paris sun as the city sweltered in record-breaking heat on July 25.
The torture continued across town, where the heat reverberated off the pavement and the city’s iconic stone facades, turning its grand boulevards and stately avenues into tunnels where it was impossible to escape the inferno.
People do any number of things on days like this, one of which is to pile into movie theaters for afternoon matinees of films they may not even want to see. Tickets were sold out for a number of these shows at many theaters, some of the only places that are air-conditioned in the entire city.
There is also a heavy listlessness. In the height of tourist season, major attractions like the Place de la Concorde and the Luxembourg Gardens were eerily deserted, silent under a cruel haze.
Twenty of France’s administrative departments – from Paris north toward the English Channel – were placed on the highest possible alert level.
Elisabeth Borne, France’s minister of sustainable development, urged citizens to cancel or postpone all unnecessary travel during the heat wave, expected to last until Friday. The SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, allowed customers to exchange or cancel free of charge any Thursday travel to the 20 northern regions particularly affected.
In Belgium, where the government activated a “code red” alert over the hot weather for the first time, some regional trains were likewise out of service because the equipment could not stand the heat.
The mercury in Belgium hit 103.8F on Wednesday, the hottest since records began to be kept in 1833, and temperatures were expected to be even hotter on Thursday.
In London, parents took young children to air conditioned shopping malls, while others headed for local supermarkets to stock up on ice cream and the last fans still in stock. As is the case elsewhere in Europe, most London homes lack air conditioning.In normally green and lush West Germany, temperatures soared to miserable heights in traditional town centers, interrupting tourist traffic.
Punishing heat – in historic cities largely without widespread air conditioning, especially in homes – has become Europe’s new normal.
In much of Europe, air conditioning has often been seen as a luxury, and even an American-style indulgence. But that is changing, said Sacha Gaillard, a technician with Les Bons Artisans, a French company that, among other things, installs air conditioners.
“We are in a situation where people cannot live,” he said, noting that the company’s air conditioning business across France has increased exponentially in the past five years. “[People] can’t sleep at their apartments. Air conditioning is no longer a comfort. It’s a necessity. It’s as if people had no heat in winter.”
Despite the widespread misery during these increasingly frequent heat waves, however, there is still resistance to the view that air conditioning is a necessity. Some still see air conditioning primarily as a threat to the environment – precisely the wrong response to crippling heat waves triggered by climate change.
There also bureaucratic concerns. Many residential buildings in cities such as Paris are centuries old and are historically classified landmarks. Their facades cannot easily be altered without the express permission of city hall or an architectural union under the auspices of the Culture Ministry.
“Nine times out of 10, you’re not allowed to drill through the walls,” said James Devlin, a British man who runs James’Clim, an air conditioning installation service in Paris. He said that because the restrictions in Paris are extensive, most of his installations take place in the suburbs and surrounding area.
“If it’s not a listed building, they’re still very restricted. You don’t have a place to put the unit on the exterior,” he said.
There is also the price: For a family-sized Paris apartment of roughly 100 square meters, or 1,070 square feet, Devlin said that installing air conditioning could cost from 12,000 to 16,000 euros ($13,300 to $17,700). Even so, in the last five to six months, he said, he has had an installation almost every day. On Wednesday, the first day of the intense heat, he received more than 40 calls for consultations.
In the meantime, cities are coordinating impromptu measures for residents to cool off. Paris, for instance, has designated air-conditioned rooms in each arrondissement, or district, as well as outdoor swimming areas and parks that stay open around the clock.
Long-term, human-caused climate change makes extreme-heat events like this one more likely to occur, more sever, and longer-lasting, according to numerous scientific studies.
For example, a recent scientific analysis, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed science journal, showed that the early-summer heat wave in Europe was at least five times more likely to occur in the current climate than if human-caused warming had not occurred.
Globally, 2019 is on its way to being one of the top five hottest years since record-keeping began in the late 19th century. And in part because of the hot weather in Europe, July may rank as the hottest month on record. June 2019 was already the hottest June to date.
The cause of this heat wave is a large area of high pressure, known as a “heat dome,” that has temporarily rerouted the typical flow of the jet stream and allowed hot air from Africa to surge northward. This weather feature is unusually intense, allowing for all-time temperature records to fall at the hottest time of year, when such records are usually so high they are difficult to topple.
The weather pattern responsible for this heat event is similar to the one that brought record heat to parts of Europe in late June into early July. However, this one is going to migrate northeast into Scandinavia, breaking records in Norway and Sweden late this weekend, and then it may go on to elevate temperatures across the Arctic Ocean, accelerating the melting of an already anemic sea ice cover.
The rising temperatures also heated up the political climate.
German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on a plan by the Green Party – which has become a major political force partially due to its push to decrease emissions and combat climate change – to prepare Germany for future heat waves. In its policy paper, Green Party officials propose a “right to home office” for all employees and a “right to be given the day off in case of excessively hot weather” for employees working outside.
The heat wave coincided with a visit of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to France earlier this week. She addressed the National Assembly on Tuesday, delivering a speech that triggered calls for boycotts from right-wing politicians.
“You don’t have to listen to us,” Thunberg said in her address, “but you do have to listen to the science.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · James McAuley, Andrew Freedman