Extreme heat warnings for 16 Italian cities as heatwave set to break European records

High temperatures have sparked huge wild fires in Spain's Canary Islands

A woman drinks water near the Forum in Rome during a heatwave across Italy. Reuters
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Italian authorities issued red alerts for extreme weather in 16 of the country's cities on Sunday, as experts warn temperatures will soar to record highs in the coming days.

Health alerts were announced in cities from Rome to Palermo in Sicily, including Florence, Bologna and Bari, in the southeast of the peninsula.

"Going to the Colosseum [in Rome] when it is 43ºC is not advisable, especially for an elderly person," Italy's Health Minister Orazio Schillaci told Il Messaggero newspaper on Sunday.

Mr Schillaci said that people should stay indoors during the hottest part of the day, between 11 am and 6pm.

A new anticyclone called Charon, who was the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, moved into the southern Europe region from North Africa on Sunday and could lift temperatures above 45ºC in parts of Italy early this week.

Charon was immediately preceded by a heatwave called Cerberus - the hound of Hades in Greek mythology - that was caused by high air pressure coming from the Sahara.

"We need to prepare for a severe heat storm that, day after day, will blanket the whole country," Italian weather news service Meteo.it warned.

Meteorologists said Europe's current highest recorded temperature of 48.8ºC, which was set in Sicily two years ago, could be exceeded in the coming days, notably on the Italian island of Sardinia.

Forest fire

Meanwhile, thousands of people have left their homes after a forest fire erupted in Spain's Canary Islands, with southern Europe in the grip of an intense heatwave.

At least 11 houses were destroyed in the fire that started in a wooded area on the island of La Palma. At least 4,000 people were evacuated after the alarm was raised in the early hours of Saturday.

Many parts of southern Spain saw temperatures hit 40ºC last week, and even higher temperatures are forecast for next week, in both Spain and across southern Europe.

Last year's hot summer led to more than 61,000 deaths in Europe due to heat-related causes, a study published in Nature Medicine journal has found.

About 4,500 hectares of land have been ravaged by the fire on La Palma and the Spanish army has deployed 150 of its firefighters to help local crews.

Helicopter footage showed smoke rising from a hillside on the island off the coast of West Africa, where thousands had to flee their homes when a volcano erupted in 2021.

"The fire advanced very quickly,” said Fernando Clavijo, president of the Canary Islands regional government.

He blamed "the wind, the climate conditions as well as the heatwave that we are living through" for the swift spread of the blaze.

The World Meteorological Organisation said the risk of fires was fuelled by heatwaves and dry conditions.

A vast area of Germany was also under extreme heat warnings on Saturday. In Greece, forecasters warned that temperatures would not drop below 26°C, even at night. The Acropolis in Athens was closed to tourists on Friday.

In France, energy company EDF will curtail production at one of its nuclear reactors this weekend as the heat limits the amount of water that can safely be discharged into rivers.

High temperatures and resulting drought are posing a threat to the farming industry, Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said.

June was the second-hottest on record in France, according to the national weather agency, and several areas of the country have been under a heatwave alert since Tuesday.

The EU's climate monitoring service said the world saw its hottest June on record last month.

High winds in Britain

The UK, by contrast, was warned of thunderstorms and high winds due to conditions in the Atlantic.

Met Office chief meteorologist Andy Page said it was an “unusual time of year for such strong winds” and they were “likely to cause some disruption”.

Europe has been warned to expect increasingly extreme weather because of climate change.

Scientists believe Europe has already warmed by 2.3°C since pre-industrial times, far more than the world as a whole. More than 16,000 people are believed to have died because of heatwaves across the continent last year.

Europe saw its hottest summer in 2022 and a record loss of glaciers in the Alps. Britain recorded its first 40°C day and a lack of rain brought freight traffic to a standstill on the River Rhine.

Updated: July 17, 2023, 3:55 AM