Jul 17, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Historic heat wave, wildfires hit Europe as temperatures climb in U.S.

Photo of a firefighter drinking water while fighting a wildfire during a heat wave.
A firefighter quenches his thirst while battling a wildfire near Louchats in Gironde, southwestern France, on July 17. Photo: Thibaud Moritz/AFP via Getty Images

A deadly heat wave is enveloping France and the U.K. after tormenting Spain and Portugal, bringing the likelihood of a new all-time high temperature record in both countries. Climate change is a key factor involved in this ongoing disaster, scientists say.

The big picture: This is one of the worst heat waves on record in Western Europe, and is accompanied by a wildfire crisis that has prompted thousands to evacuate parts of France, Spain and Portugal.

  • Due to the threat to public health posed by the hot temperatures, the British government declared an unprecedented national heat emergency on Friday. The U.K. Met Office is forecasting the country's first-ever occurrence of 104°F (40°C) temperatures.
  • The current national temperature record stands at 101.66°F (38.7°C), which was set in 2019. The Met Office is predicting there is an 80% chance that will be beaten by Wednesday.
  • The peak of the heat wave in France is forecast to be on Monday, when temperatures of 104°F (40°C) or higher are possible, particularly in western parts of the country, Meteo France stated.

Context: Studies have shown that climate change is making heat waves like this one hotter than they otherwise would have been, as well as more frequent and longer-lasting.

Threat level: Wildfires associated with the heat wave and drought conditions are burning in southern France, northern Spain and parts of Portugal and Greece. Particularly intense blazes were located in Malaga, Spain, and near Bordeaux in France on Sunday, per the AP.

  • Extreme heat is deadly, particularly for vulnerable groups like the elderly, those with preexisting medical conditions and anyone without access to cooling. This is a particular concern for those in Great Britain, since only about 3% of homes in that country have air conditioning.
  • The heat has already proved deadly in Portugal, where the Health Ministry reportedly declared 659 heat-related fatalities in the past week, Reuters reports. A 2003 heat wave in France killed an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 people.
  • Heat waves are particularly dangerous when overnight temperatures remain high, depriving people of relief. Numerous records for hot overnight temperatures have been set so far during this event in western Europe.
  • In addition to the public health concerns, the heat wave is likely to be disruptive in other ways. In the U.K., officials are warning against traveling by rail, since hot temperatures can warp railroad tracks.
  • Even air travel may be affected, as heavy jets sink into hot concrete and require longer runway lengths to takeoff.

By the numbers: Dozens of monthly and even all-time temperature records have been set or tied in Western Europe due to the northeastward movement of the extraordinarily hot air mass that originated in northwestern Africa.

  • 116.6°F (47.0°C): A preliminary national July high-temperature record set Thursday in Pinhão, Portugal.
  • 107.24°F (41.8°C): All-time high-temperature record set in Pamplona, Spain, on Saturday.
  • 30: Number of monthly temperature records set in France on Saturday, according to weather historian Maximiliano Herrera.
  • 98.6°F (37°C): Forecast high temperature on Tuesday in London, according to the Met Office.
  • 7: Number of countries in which national all-time high-temperature records may be threatened, according to the UK Met Office. These include France, Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.

Meanwhile... In the U.S., where extreme heat has stressed the electrical grid in Texas for weeks and set numerous temperature records, the coming week looks even hotter than at any other time this summer.

  • On Tuesday, temperatures will soar into the 100s from Texas to Nebraska, with tens of millions forecast to see such sizzling temperatures.
High temperature forecast map for July 19, 2022 in Texas and surrounding states.
High temperature forecast map for July 19, 2022 in Texas and surrounding states. Image: NDFD via Weatherbell.com
  • Oklahoma City could see its high temperature reach up to 112°F with scorching heat index values. Nearly every weather station in Texas looks to be in the triple-digits.
  • The heat will be prolonged, with computer models projecting several more weeks of unusually high temperatures as a heat dome shifts west with time, setting up hot and dry conditions from Colorado to California.
  • This could worsen the wildfire season, and intensify the already severe drought in the West.
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