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Europe: Heat Wave Causing Economic, Infrastructure Problems

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Soaring temperatures are setting records around Europe, and there is no immediate end in sight. Britain and Germany yesterday sweated through their highest-ever temperatures since records began. In Southern Europe, forest fires are continuing to rage. The unprecedented heat is beginning to have an effect on agriculture and even on mainline infrastructure like electricity supplies.

Prague, 11 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Millions of vacationers across Europe, who traditionally crave sunshine in August, have had their fill and more this year of long, cloudless days. From the Nordic countries down to the Mediterranean, Europe has been seared by heat.

The German Weather Service (DWD) says that yesterday temperatures reached 40.4 degrees Celsius at Roth, near Munich -- the highest temperature on German soil since records began in 1730.

Similarly in England, thermometers in the south of the country reached 37.4 degrees Celsius -- also a historical high.

Portugal, where temperatures have neared 50 degrees, is reeling under the impact of the worst forest fires in the nation's history. Spain and Italy are likewise fighting blazes, and in the Alps the glaciers are melting.

DWD spokesman Michael Knobelsdorf explained why Europe is caught in the grip of such unrelenting heat. "The basic reason is that we have got a very stable high-pressure system over Central Europe, and that has persisted over weeks, and we had the opportunity to receive very hot air from Africa," he said.

Even sun seekers and beachcombers have found the unrelenting heat too much, and have sought the shade. The sea has offered vacationers little relief because of what Knobelsdorf described as the "amazing" rise in water temperatures, even in traditionally cold waters.

"Even in the East Sea [the Baltic] and the North Sea, and I assume in some areas in the Mediterranean, we have water temperatures of close to 30 degrees plus." Knobelsdorf said.

The heat and the lack of rain are even beginning to disrupt economic life on the Continent. In the countryside, crops are withering, and in the cities, electricity supplies are stretched, and there may soon be power cuts unless the weather breaks.

In Britain, the railways, already under much criticism for unreliability, have had to slow their services further because of the danger of rails buckling in the heat. As Dominic Woollart, a meteorologist at the London Meteorological Office, put it, "The Met Office has now set up a link with the railways to advise them on the temperatures of the tracks, to help them make their decisions on how fast trains should be traveling."

In France, the public utility Electricite de France (EDF) has said its production is being hit by the rise in temperatures of river waters. Industry Minister Nicole Fontaine has called the situation "serious." That's because power stations, particularly nuclear plants, need large quantities of water as a coolant. This water is already exceptionally warm when it enters the power station, and when it leaves it contains so much extra heat that it is above the permitted norms. This means that fish and other aquatic life will die.

Despite the risk to nature, the French Authority for Nuclear Security has granted special permission for several nuclear-power plants to discharge water that is hotter than the norm. In Germany, there is a similar situation, and some nuclear facilities have been told to scale down their production of electricity.

Are we threatened with an environmental disaster? Knobelsdorf of the DWD said: "Apparently yes, we will see the result only after the weather pattern has changed, and then we will probably get a better picture of what has actually happened in terms of damage to nature. It's quite obvious that the whole of Europe is suffering one of its worst droughts ever."

An expert with the British National Farmers Union, Paul Ibbott, said that generally, the further south one goes, the worse the situation gets with spoiled crops. "Things in England are not too bad, but Germany and France are having a pretty horrid time now," he said.

He notes English cereal growers are about to harvest a bumper crop, whereas in France, the national cereal crop is down by some 6 million tons because of excessive heat. Rain in that country has been some 50 percent less than usual since January. Potato farmers everywhere are worried there will not be sufficient water to keep the crop moist. Grazing land for sheep and cattle is also drying up. By contrast, the sugar beet harvest is beginning early this year because of the above-average growth rates.

Italian farmers are probably worst-affected of all, as the drought continues and their water sources begin to dry up. From his summer residence outside Rome, Pope John Paul II has been leading prayers for rain. Around the Continent, many farmers will be praying along with him.