Europe melts under Sahara heat wave, smashes records

People cool off and sunbathe by the Trocadero Fountains next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on July 25, 2019 as a new heatwave hits the French capital. - After all-time temperature records were smashed in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands on July 24, Britain and the French capital Paris could on July 25 to see their highest ever temperatures. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP) (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — Even ice cream, Italian gelato or Popsicles couldn’t help this time.

Temperature records that had stood for decades or even just hours fell minute by minute Thursday afternoon, and Europeans and tourists jumped into fountains, lakes, rivers or the sea to escape a suffocating heat wave rising up from the Sahara.

On a day no one on the continent will ever forget, two potential drug dealers in Belgium even called the police, begging to be rescued from the locked container they managed to get themselves trapped in.

It was nearly impossible to keep up with the falling records as temperatures climbed higher and higher under a brutal sun — in Paris and London, in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands — all places where air conditioning is not typically installed in homes, cafes or stores.

Even office air conditioning systems strained under the hot, dry air that was trapped between two stormy weather systems.

Climate scientists warned these types of heat waves could become the new normal, but they loom as a giant challenge for temperate Europe.

As emissions keep warming the planet, scientists say there will be more and hotter heat waves, although it’s too early to know whether this specific hot spell is linked to man-made climate change.

“There is likely the DNA of climate change in the record-breaking heat that Europe and other parts of the world are experiencing. And it is unfortunately going to continue to worsen,” said Marshall Shepherd, professor of meteorology at University of Georgia.

Electric fans sold out across Paris — and traditional folding fans made a comeback on the city’s stuffy Metro.

Trains were canceled in Britain and France, with authorities in both nations urging travelers to stay home.

Messages to “Hydrate yourselves” blared from the radio and TV, and water bottles were handed out with abandon.

Still, the atmosphere was buoyant, as people sought to stay cool yet embrace the moment.

Katy James, visiting Paris from Chicago, was one of the lucky ones with an air-conditioned room but she was still out in the streets, enjoying the atmosphere.

“We’ve had such a good time. The Parisians have been so accommodating. We’ve been getting water where ever we go. We got to play in the fountain. This was amazing,” James said.

France’s heat alert system went to its maximum level of red for the first time during last month’s heat wave, when France saw its highest-ever recorded temperature of 114.8 degrees.

On Thursday, about one-fifth of French territory was under a red alert, stretching from the English Channel through the Paris region and down to Burgundy, affecting at least 20 million people.

French authorities have been particularly wary since a 2003 heat wave killed nearly 15,000 people, many of them elderly, stuck alone in stiflingly hot apartments.

“The science behind heat wave attribution is very robust — the first extreme weather event to be definitively linked to global warming was the 2003 European heat wave,” NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel said.

“We know that as the climate warms, heat waves become more likely and more severe.”

So as tourists frolicked in fountains, authorities and volunteers in Paris and London fanned out to help the elderly, the sick and the homeless, opening cooling centers to let people rest, recover or shower.

“They are in the street all day, under the sun. No air conditioning, no way to protect oneself from the heat,” said Ruggero Gatti, an IT worker who joined other Red Cross volunteers handing out water bottles, soup and yogurt to the homeless in the Paris suburb of Boulogne.

Across the Channel, the heat damaged overhead electric wires between London’s St. Pancras train station and Luton Airport, blocking all train lines.

East Midlands Trains posted a message to passengers on Twitter, saying simply “DO NOT TRAVEL.”

The sheer levels of heat on Thursday afternoon were nothing short of astonishing:

  • The Paris area hit 108.7 degrees, beating the previous record of 104.7 degrees set in 1947.
  • The Netherlands’ meteorological institute announced a record that beat the previous record set just a day ago: 105.3 degrees in the Gilze Rijen municipality near the Belgian border.
  • Belgium hit all-time records twice in the day, rising to 105.3 degrees in the western town of Beitem. “This is the highest recorded temperature for Belgium in history since the beginning of the measurements in 1833,” said Alex Dewalque of the country’s Royal Meteorological Institute.
  • The northern German town of Lingen set a national temperature record at least three times Thursday, finally hitting 108.7 degrees. Those repeated records came after the country had set a national record Wednesday of 104.9 degrees in Geilenkirchen near the Belgian border.
  • London recorded its hottest day on record for July, with the mercury climbing to 98.4 degrees at Heathrow Airport. The previous July record was 98 degrees in 2015.
  • In Britain overall, temperatures hit 100.6 degrees in southern England, which gave the country a record for the highest July temperature ever but did not beat the national record of 101.3 degrees set in August 2003. Britain’s Met Office said its temperature records go back to 1865.
  • The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment issued a “smog alarm” Thursday for areas including the densely populated cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague due to high ozone levels.

In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, some communities painted vital rail tracks white in hopes that the light color would bring down the temperature a few degrees and the tracks would not get warped by the heat.

German railways Deutsche Bahn said passengers who had booked tickets for Thursday or Friday and wanted to delay their trips could do so without charge.

In Cologne in western Germany, volunteers handed out free water while others sunbathed on the dried-up banks of the Rhine River. In Bavaria’s prisons, inmates were getting cold cucumber soup, fruit and yoghurt for lunch and more water than normal.

In Austria, a 2-year-old died of dehydration Wednesday in the country’s Styria region after he climbed into an overheated parked car without his family noticing.

Social media had fun with a photo showing that even Queen Elizabeth II, one of the world’s wealthiest women, needed relief from the heat.

An image of the monarch meeting new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday appeared to have a Dyson fan in the background, a tower-like design that stood out against the delicate gilt-edged decor at Buckingham Palace.

As intense as it was, the heat in Europe is expected to be short, with temperatures forecast to drop on Friday and Saturday.

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