Europe continues to swelter amid unrelenting heatwave: WMO

Smoke rises from the ground among burnt trees after a forest fire flared anew in the village of Rebolo, near Ansiao central Portugal, Thursday, 14 July, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Temperatures will continue to skyrocket across western Europe next week, increasing the risk of more wildfires, droughts, and triggering new health warnings as the summer heatwave persists, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned on Friday. 

Speaking at a press briefing in Geneva, Lorenzo Labrador, a WMO scientific officer, said that while it was difficult to link heatwave events directly to climate change, “evidence points towards heatwaves becoming more prevalent and their temperatures becoming more extreme in the coming years”.

“That kind of link over an extended period of time, years, we can attribute to climate change,” he added.

Heatwaves are caused by high pressure in the atmosphere pushing warm air to the ground.  Labrador said the high-pressure system “currently sitting right on top of the British Isles” would move east and result in high temperatures across much of central Europe and the Balkans next week.

Another high-pressure system over the Atlantic known as the Azores High has already brought extreme heat to much of western Europe and is leading to the driest conditions on the Iberian Peninsula in the last 1,000 years, Labrador added, citing a recent study in Nature.

More than 20 wildfires have already been reported in Portugal, western Spain and southwest France, with temperatures hitting highs of around 46ºC over the past week.

Evacuations continued over the weekend, with thousands of people forced to leave their homes in the French department of Gironde, Malaga in Spain, where wildfires blazed through the night on Saturday. In Greece, 71 blazes broke out within 24 hours, the fire brigade said on Saturday, cited by Reuters.

Blistering temperatures are not the only consequence of heatwaves.  The stagnant, hot air acts like a lid, trapping pollutants close to the surface, especially in urban centres.

“These result in degradation of air quality and adverse health effects, particularly for vulnerable people,” Labrador said. “This is often an overlooked aspect of heatwaves and a very important one.”

Heatwaves also bring other health dangers including dehydration and heat exhaustion, with older people, children, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing health conditions particularly at risk.

Read also: Heatwaves are getting deadlier – here’s how to combat them

Several countries and cities have issued emergency responses, including the UK, which extended its danger-to-life warning ahead of the weekend.

In London, temperatures are expected to rise to more than 10ºC above average July temperatures to hit 35ºC on Monday, with ambulances and healthcare services on high alert.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) urged cities and communities on Thursday “to prepare to avoid a further disaster”, and warned of the wider repercussions of heatwaves on other areas of society, such as health systems, power supplies, and crops at a time when food and energy prices are already soaring.

“People are not always aware of the dangers of heat. But when communities understand the risks and take simple measures to prepare for it, they can prevent unnecessary tragedies,” says Maarten Aalst van, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.