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Heat spreads misery across Europe and beyond — with the worst yet to come

Japan is beleaguered, too, with more than 300 deaths attributed to extreme heat, floods and landslides in July.

A wildfire burns in Rafina, a town near Athens, Greece.
REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

This summer’s northern heat waves have begun to seem less like a siege than a reign of plague in their immensity, lethality and, suddenly, longevity: The word from AccuWeather on Tuesday is that July’s dangerously high temperatures across Western Europe will likely increase, persist and expand into new territories through this first week of August and beyond.

Though Madrid, for example, has touched 100 degrees F. only once this summer, the outlook is for daily highs in that range or higher for a full week; southern Spain and Portugal could see temperatures topping out anywhere from 112 to 120 degrees, with southwestern France holding to a mere 110.

The number of historic anomalies is impressive. So far, all-time national high temperatures — not just readings for a particular point or date — have been recorded in Finland, Norway and Sweden, according to the Associated Press.

Also in Japan, where the new all-time high of 106 was recorded July 23. The misery there (and South Korea, and Hong Kong) hasn’t gotten quite as much coverage as Europe’s in U.S. media, even though the picture is quite grim: The AP reports from Tokyo that at least 116 have died of heat-related causes, with hospital admission rates reaching 22,000 per week in late July.

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Add in the 220-plus fatalities associated with flooding and landslides that followed torrential rains early in July, and you have a toll for the month that averages out to more than 20 per day.

Then there are the forest fires of unusual size and location (Sweden, Norway, Finland) or killing force (91 dead and the toll potentially still climbing for the Mati blaze on Greece’s Aegean coast, Europe’s most lethal fire since 1900).

It has been difficult to keep up with all the news of 2018’s hellish summer weather, and it will be some time before comprehensive measures and comparisons can be made. In the meantime, here are a few key insights and perspectives I’ve collected for consideration as the heat goes on.

The climate driver

The underlying cause of this summer’s heat patterns is widely agreed, of course, to be man-made climate change. One new analysis that has gotten considerable attention in the last week or so is the work of the World Weather Attribution organization, a collaborative of English, Dutch, French and American researchers.

The team is attempting to understand and attribute weather anomalies as they occur, and report the results in real time, which means the findings are continuously updated with new temperatures and other data, a process that will continue through August. Some conclusions so far:

  • Though high temperatures have been extraordinary across much of Europe, the largest extremes have occurred near the Arctic Circle. (You won’t see much about this in the main run of coverage, which focuses on human suffering, so here’s an interesting example: NASA points out that Eagle, Alaska — which lies a bit south of the circle, and was featured in John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country” — was hotter on May 23 than any day Houston or Dallas had experienced in 2018).
  • Though many temperature records fell in Europe, the more remarkable anomaly was the persistence of extreme heat day after day.
  • Depending on where in Europe the calculations are focused, it is reasonable to conclude that human-caused climate change has made this year’s heat patterns twice as likely (Dublin) to four times as likely (Denmark), compared to natural variability.
  • “With global mean temperatures continuing to increase, heat waves like this will become less exceptional.”

Jet-stream mechanics

The short-term driver of these heat regimes is widely considered to be a peculiar slowing — sometimes described as a kinking or stalling — in the jet stream. This is the atmospheric current that moves air around the Northern Hemisphere in a roughly circular flow whose route and rate are continually shifting.

A popular explainer of the mechanism this summer is Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, widely quoted in noting that the jet stream’s movement has slowed most dramatically over Europe, Japan and the western United States — all places where temperatures have been especially extreme. This discussion has also recalled an influential study published last year by Michael Mann at Penn State, tracing recent changes in its behavior to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and particularly to the warming climate patterns the higher concentrations have brought to the Arctic.

Speaking to New Scientist last week, Mann said such disruptions contributed to “many of the most extreme, persistent summer weather events in recent years, including the 2003 European heat wave, 2010 Moscow wildfires, 2011 Texas and Oklahoma drought [and the] 2016 Alberta wildfires.”

“Events like the massive wildfires breaking out around the Arctic Circle really have no precedent in modern history and they are consequently very difficult to anticipate in advance,” says Mann. “It is a reminder that there are many surprises lurking in the greenhouse and they are unlikely to be welcome surprises.”

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Impacts on agriculture

It’s hard to beat a forest fire in Scandinavia for powerful news video, but the persistent heat’s slower-moving damage to agriculture is stirring deep concern, particularly in Britain and Germany.

Production of sheep meat and cow’s milk is already down in Britain, according to The Guardian, while grain crops are being harvested earlier — with lower yields — in response to accelerated ripening.

Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, warned of impacts across the market for vegetables. “As a broad generalisation, volumes [of crops harvested] will be down and for the majority of crops costs will be up.”

The next few months would be crucial, he said. “Brassicas, such as broccoli and cabbage, are down in volume. With salad, growers are having difficulty just keeping the plants alive. But there is still time for potatoes to bulk up, and onions,” he said. “That will depend on the weather in August and September.”

And according to Bloomberg:

The heat and lack of rainfall is pummeling crops across Europe as far as the Black Sea. Output in Russia, the world’s top wheat exporter, is set to fall for the first time in six years, while concerns continue to mount about smaller crops in key growers such as France and Germany. Wheat futures for December have jumped almost 10 percent in the past month in Paris, with prices this week reaching the highest since the contract started trading in 2015.

Also in trouble: canola, corn, and grasses grown for animal feed and bedding. In Germany, Deutsche Welle reported Tuesday, the farmer’s union is calling for emergency relief to offset crippling losses, while the Swedish government has begun aiding farmers there with an initial allocation of $137 million.

Historical footnote

As always, coverage of the current heat wave includes the obligatory pieces recalling that this beastly European summer does have rivals in the past.

A popular comparison in the British papers has been to 1976, when the economy was shriveling, the government was teetering … and the punk movement was born in London, in part because, as Andy Beckett observes in The Guardian, it was suddenly comfortable to haunt the clubs and roam the streets all night in ripped clothing that was more holes than fabric.

Who knew?