The vast heatwave covering swathes of Europe moved steadily eastwards yesterday, forcing countries including Italy, Poland and Slovenia to issue their highest heatwave alerts as firefighters battled wildfires across the continent.
Since temperatures in southern Europe began to soar earlier this month, the heatwave has caused hundreds of deaths and sparked wildfires that have burned tens of thousands of hectares of land in countries including Spain, Portugal and France.
Britain and France both saw record high temperatures on Tuesday.
The extreme heatwave is part of a global pattern of rising temperatures, widely attributed by scientists and climatologists to climate change caused by human activity.
It is forecast to dump searing heat on much of China into late August.
“The situation is much worse than expected, even if we were expecting temperature anomalies with our long-term forecasts,” Jesus San Miguel, co-ordinator of the European Union’s EFFIS satellite monitoring service, told AFP.
He said there could be worse to come, adding that the hallmarks of global heating were all over this year’s fire season.
“Ignition is caused by people (but) the heatwave is critical, and clearly linked to climate change,” he said. “The fire season used to be concentrated from July to September. Now we are getting longer seasons and very intense fire. We expect climate change to create higher fire conditions in Europe.”
Temperatures have warmed just over 1.1° Celsius since the industrial era, and the United Nations Says Earth is currently on track to warm some 2.7C this century.
This additional heat is enough to make the kind of heatwaves that baked Europe this week more likely to occur and to last longer when they do.
Mark Parrington, head scientist at the EU’s Copernicus atmospheric monitoring service, said climate change had already contributed to how long wildfires last when they break out.
“What is remarkable is just how long they burn,” he told AFP. “This is not the kind of thing we typically see in Europe.
Hotter temperatures combined with near-unprecedented drought conditions across much of Europe contribute to making forests tinder dry, providing the ideal conditions for wildfires to start and then spread.
“There is a lot of fuel,” said Parrington. “In central and southern Europe there is a clear upward trend for fire risk.”
As well as damaging ecosystems and removing carbon-absorbing vegetation from the land, wildfires themselves contribute to climate change by emitting greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2).
Copernicus this week said fires in June and July in Spain and Morocco had produced some 1.3mn tonnes of CO2 – the highest of any equivalent period since records began in 2003.
The blazes also affect air quality for nearby populations.
In southwest France, elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have been noted for days over the city of Bordeaux, just north of two major burn areas, and even in Paris, some 500km (310 miles) northeast.
Greece, which contained a huge wildfire that raged near Athens for two days and was fanned by high winds, has meanwhile urged Europe to do more to tackle climate change.
“The climate crisis is now evident across Europe, with particular intensity in the wider Mediterranean region. The cocktail of high temperatures, gusty winds and heavy drought inevitably leads to wildfires,” government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said yesterday.
“Europe must act in a co-ordinated and rapid manner to reverse the climate crisis,” he told reporters. “The solution cannot be given at a national level, because the problem is transnational and huge.”
Greek fire fighters had tackled 390 forest fires in one week, about 50-70 blazes a day, he said.
According to the meteorological station in Penteli outside Athens, where the fire broke out on Tuesday, winds reached 113kph (0 mph) at one point.
Fuelled by climate change, wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity in many countries, spreading smoke that contains noxious gases, chemicals and particulate matter and that can be damaging to health.
In Poland, the authorities issued heat warnings for many parts of the country, with temperatures as high as 36.7C (98F) measured in the western town of Kornik.
In the northern port city of Gdansk, many residents and tourists headed for local beaches to cool down.
A large wildfire fire broke out near the southern town of Brzesko, the Onet news website reported.
Firefighters told Onet that more than 50 hectares (120 acres) of fields had already burned, and that the fire was moving towards a forest.
Temperatures in Poland are expected to ease on the weekend.
In Italy, blazes in Tuscany and Friuli Venezia Giulia continued to rage but did not appear to have spread, Italian news agency Ansa reported.
New wildfires were spotted in the mountains near Bologna and bordering the A9 highway, north of Milan, it said.
Fourteen cities, including Rome and Milan, were placed on the country’s highest heatwave alert yesterday, with the number set to increase to 16 today, the health ministry said.
Ansa also reported that a wildfire that began in northern Italy near Carso has spread across the border to Slovenia, damaging an area of over 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres).
On the Slovenian side, 400 people from three villages had to be evacuated because of the blaze, Slovenian news outlets said.
Wildfires continued to burn in Portugal and Spain.
Sitting in a large sports hall filled with cots and plastic chairs, Fernando Gimenez, 68, shed tears as he spoke about leaving his home in central Spain, west of Madrid.
Gimenez was one of thousands of residents evacuated from the village of El Hoyo de Pinares because of a wildfire.
“I don’t know what I will find. Burnt trees. Nothing. I can’t even think about it,” Gimenez told Reuters. “I feel kind of emptiness inside.”
The Spanish Red Cross has organised temporary accommodation for him and hundreds of evacuees.
“We work a lot with them on psychological support, because leaving their home behind without knowing what is happening, it’s hard,” said a Red Cross team leader, Belen Lopez.
A burned statue is seen at the ‘Les Flots Bleus’ camping site, ravaged by a wildfire in La Teste-de-Buch forest near the Dune of Pilat, in the Gironde region of southwestern France.