Europe swelters in latest heatwave as Spain issues red weather alerts for three regions

Forecasters warn the mercury could reach 44ºC in the eastern region of Catalonia, and Aragon and the Balearic Islands

Spanish firefighters work to extinguish a blaze at Tijarafe, on the Canary Island of La Palma. Reuters
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Spain issued three red weather alerts on the dangers posed by soaring temperatures on Tuesday, as the World Meteorological Organisation warned against the increased risks due to heatwaves across Europe.

Forecasters warned the mercury could reach 44ºC in the eastern region of Catalonia, and in Aragon and the Balearic Islands, prompting the weather office to issue red alerts for the three regions.

Elsewhere in Europe, Rome registered a new record high temperature of 41.8ºC, the weather service of the Lazio region reported.

The previous record of 40.7ºC was set in June 2022.

The soaring temperatures are being fuelled by an anticyclone, or area of high air pressure, named Charon after the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology.

The weather system pushed into the region from North Africa at the weekend, following Cerberus, another anticyclone, which caused extreme temperatures in the same part of the continent last week.

The WMO said the latest heatwave was set to intensify over the coming days.

“Temperatures in North America, Asia, and across North Africa and the Mediterranean will be above 40°C for a prolonged number of days this week as the heatwave intensifies,” the agency said.

It warned that overnight minimum temperatures were also expected to reach new highs, creating the risk of increased cases of heart attacks and deaths.

“While most of the attention focuses on daytime maximum temperatures, it is the overnight temperatures which have the biggest health risks, especially for vulnerable populations,” it said.

In Cyprus, health authorities confirmed that a man, 90, died at the weekend from heatstroke while six other elderly people have been taken to hospital.

All seven suffered heatstroke at home last week as temperatures passed 43ºC.

Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London told The National the temperatures in Southern Europe were “beyond the ability of people to survive”.

“These are exactly the sort of heatwaves we have always been worried about and concerned about, and they are unfortunately going to become much more frequent and more severe due to human-caused climate change,” Prof Kelman said.

Heatwaves in Europe – in pictures

He said the danger lies in temperatures not cooling down at night or not falling below 25ºC in many parts of the Mediterranean coast and the interior of the Iberian Peninsula.

“While it is possible for us to die directly of heat, the danger really comes with the cumulative effects over a number of days when there isn’t indoor cooling and when it’s not cooling down at night,” Prof Kelman told The National.

“We are all warm-blooded and we spend a lot of calories trying to keep our body temperature around 37ºC.

"But when it gets too hot and we are continuously exposed to this level of heat and humidity ,then our bodies cannot cope to that level.

“Our body starts breaking down. Our organs start failing. And while hopefully, even people who are indoors are drinking a lot of water, dehydration does end up being a major concern too.”

He said people particularly at risk included those without access to air conditioning or people who have to work outside, such as construction workers or fruit and vegetable pickers.

Those with AC are more protected, but some may be forced to limit their use due to the high costs of electricity. But if people continually use more AC, Prof Kelman said power cuts could follow.

People without AC may resort to fans, but they are not effective above certain temperatures.

Prof Kelman said above 40ºC without humidity, and above about 35ºC with humidity, fans “simply blow the hot and humid air on to us and dehydrate us faster”.

The best people can do is to stay in cool areas indoors and drink plenty of water, he said.

“In the long term the only way to deal with this level of heat and humidity is stopping the human contribution to climate change,” he said.

Italian health officials warned of extreme temperatures in 20 cities, rising to 23 on Wednesday, from Bolzano in the north to Palermo in the south.

The heat has prompted some travellers to go home early. They included Anita Elshoy and her husband, who returned to Norway from their favourite holiday spot of Vasanello, a village north of Rome, a week earlier than planned.

“I got a lot of pain in the head, legs and [my] fingers swelled up and I became more and more dizzy,” Ms Elshoy said.

“We were supposed to be there for two weeks but we couldn't because of the heat.”

In Greece, where a second heatwave is expected to hit on Thursday, three large wildfires burned outside Athens for a second day.

Thousands of people evacuated from coastal areas south of the capital returned to their homes on Tuesday when a fire receded after they spent the night on beaches, hotels and public facilities.

But wildfires continued to burn out of control to the north and west of Athens.

The EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service says 2022 and 2021 were the continent's hottest summers on record. Europe's highest recorded temperature of 48.8ºC was registered in Sicily two years ago.

Heat records are being shattered across the world, and scientists say there is a good chance that 2023 will go down as the hottest year on record, with measurements going back to the middle of the 19th century.

June saw the warmest global average temperature, according to Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, and the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation predicted that several records were set to be broken this summer.

The global organisation said unprecedented sea surface temperatures and low Arctic sea-ice levels were largely to blame.

Human-caused climate change is making the world hotter and is being amplified by the naturally occurring El Nino weather phenomenon.

But the current El Nino started only a few months ago and is still weak to moderate. It is expected to peak during winter.

Updated: July 19, 2023, 8:22 AM