'Hell is coming': Europe on alert as heatwave intensifies

Temperatures expected to tip 40 degrees Celsius in France, Spain and Greece as hot air from Africa travels north.

    Scientists warn global warming linked to human fossil fuel use could make scorchers more frequent [File: Sebastien Bozon/AFP]
    Scientists warn global warming linked to human fossil fuel use could make scorchers more frequent [File: Sebastien Bozon/AFP]

    Europe's record-breaking heatwave is forecast to intensify further on Thursday with authorities on high alert as temperatures threaten to exceed 40 degrees Celsius in some parts of the continent.

    The stifling heat prompted traffic restrictions in France, sparked forest fires in Spain, and fanned debate in Germany over public nudity as sweltering residents stripped down.

    Meteorologists blame a blast of hot air from northern Africa for the heat this week, which has already set new records in Europe for June. According to reports, the high temperatures have already claimed the lives of three people.

    Exceptional for arriving so early in summer, the heatwave will on Thursday and Friday likely send mercury above 40C in France, Spain and Greece.

    In Spain, hundreds of firefighters and soldiers, backed by water-dropping aircraft, battled on Wednesday to put out a wind-fuelled forest fire that erupted in Torre de l'Espanyol in the northeastern region of Catalonia.

    The worst is expected on Friday when 33 of the 50 Spanish provinces face extreme temperatures, which could reach 44C in Girona.

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    "Hell is coming," one Spanish TV weather presenter tweeted.

    In France, temperatures "unprecedented" for their timing and intensity since detailed surveys started in 1947 were expected to reach at least 39C over two-thirds of the country, said weather service Meteo-France.

    Health official Jerome Saloman said the effect of the extreme heat was starting to be felt in France, with an increase in weather-related calls to emergency medical services.

    Some schools were expected to close on Thursday and Friday while several cities - including Paris and Lyon - restricted traffic to limit a build-up of air pollution.

    French authorities were taking no chances after the August 2003 heatwave was blamed for 15,000 deaths in the country, with television and radio broadcasts issuing warnings.

    In Greece, where about 100 people were killed in last year's deadly fires at the Mati coastal resort, hospitals and officials were on red alert with temperatures of 45C.

    With the mercury soaring, firefighters were battling to contain a wildfire near an arms factory some 50km from the capital, Athens. The fire had forced the evacuation of a small refugee camp but was not threatening homes.

    The fire service said three water-dropping helicopters were assisting more than 40 personnel with 19 fire engines and water tankers near the town of Lavrio, southeast of the capital. Strong winds are fanning the flames through low vegetation.

    Another wildfire on the island of Evia was under partial control, the fire service said.

    Global warming raises risk

    Scientists warn global warming linked to human fossil fuel use could make such scorchers more frequent.

    "Global temperatures are increasing due to climate change," said Len Shaffrey, a professor of climate science at the University of Reading.

    "The global rise in temperatures means the probability that extreme heatwave will occur is also increasing."

    But French winemakers said the hot weather was more than welcome as it could produce a superior vintage.

    "Two of three days of a heatwave in Bordeaux at this time, it's magic," said Philippe Bardet, head of the Bordeaux Wine Council.

    Temperatures above 40C would help burn off any of the mildew caused by residual damp, which is "very, very good for quality", Bardet said.

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    The 70-year-old record for the highest temperature recorded for June was beaten in Germany as 38.6C was recorded in Brandenburg, the German Weather Service (DWD) confirmed on Wednesday.

    Meanwhile, police in Brandenburg cautioned a naked man for driving his moped wearing only his helmet and sandals.

    And in Munich, security guards ordered a group of women sunbathing topless on the banks of the Isar River to cover up.

    The move backfired, according to the Munich newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which quoted another sunbather as saying she and others took their tops off "out of solidarity".

    It said an urgent motion was introduced in a city council meeting to allow topless bathing.

    Scores of people have drowned in Poland and Lithuania as they tried to cool off in lakes and rivers, authorities said.

    The Polish weather institute IMGW said the country's highest ever June temperature was recorded on Wednesday in the southwest: 38.2C.

    The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute also recorded the country's highest June temperature: 38.9C in the northern town of Doksany.

    In Belgium, vastly different temperatures were expected with 19C on the north coast and 33C in the south, according to broadcaster RTBF.

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    SOURCE: News agencies