The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Intense European heat wave roasts millions as all-time records tumble

A child runs under sprinklers on July 23 during a heat wave in Vienna. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

A vast and intense heat wave is underway in Europe as an unusually strong area of high pressure, also known as a “heat dome,” tightens its grip across much of the continent. This event is similar in its causes, but in many ways more intense than the heat wave that enveloped much of Europe in late June and early July.

Since peak summer temperatures typically occur in mid-July, it is difficult to set all-time records during this time. However, such records are falling, which demonstrates the historical magnitude of this extreme weather event.

Already on Tuesday, some all-time high temperature records had fallen across France. In Bordeaux, for example, the high reached at least 106.2 degrees (41.2 Celsius) Tuesday, breaking the record for that location by nearly a full degree, according to Meteo France meteorologist Ettiene Kapikian. Bordeaux also set an all-time highest minimum temperature Tuesday, Meteo France reported.

In Paris, the city’s all-time heat record may fall Wednesday or Thursday, if temperatures exceed 104.7 degrees (40.4 Celsius). That record has stood since 1947. Current forecasts show a high of 107.6 in Paris on Thursday.

Computer model projections show that the heat wave, known in French as la canicule, could last through Friday in Paris and much of the rest of France.

Londoners are sweltering

In London, high temperatures are already climbing into the 90s and will continue to do so before the heat wave breaks at the end of the week. The U.K. Met Office is forecasting that the national July heat record of 98.1 degrees (36.7 Celsius) will fall this week, and it is possible that the all-time hottest temperature of 101.3 degrees (38.5 Celsius) will be tied or bested as well.

London’s hottest temperature record of 100.6 degrees (38.1 Celsius) is also in jeopardy Thursday.

As The Washington Post’s Jennifer Hassan reports from London, “air conditioning is not widely available in the United Kingdom, meaning that many across Britain are preparing for hot and sticky commutes to work and, of course, sleepless nights.”

In Portugal and Spain, the hot, dry conditions are escalating the risk of wildfires, and some large blazes were already burning when the heat wave boosted temperatures further.

This heat wave is not limited to the westernmost countries in Europe, either. The heat dome responsible for it, which is drawing up air from the Sahara Desert and sending it surging northeastward into continental Europe, will expand north and east, eventually setting up shop as one of the most intense such weather features on record over Scandinavia. Temperatures in Sweden and Norway are forecast to soar by the weekend.

Kapikian tweeted that the all-time heat records of Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands “will be clearly threatened.”

The ongoing heat adds to the national heat records set during the June heat wave in eight European countries.

Climate change is loading the dice in favor of more extreme heat

The widespread heat wave is tied to both ongoing weather events as well as long-term, human-caused climate change. The Met Office, for example, reports that the country is now experiencing “higher maximum temperatures and longer warm spells” than it used to.

“The hottest day of the year for the most recent decade (2008-2017) has increased by 0.8°C above the 1961-1990 average*. Warm spells have also more than doubled in length — increasing from 5.3 days in 1961-90 to over 13 days in the most recent decade (2008-2017). South East England has seen some of the most significant changes, with warm spells increasing from around six days in length (during 1961-1990) to over 18 days per year on average during the most recent decade,” the Met Office stated in a research report.

Many other studies have shown that heat waves are now more likely to occur and are more intense and longer-lasting when they do take place across much of the globe because of the overall warming of the planet’s climate.

For example, in 2019, one study found a record-breaking summer heat wave in Japan during 2018 “could not have happened without human-induced global warming.” A recent rapid attribution analysis, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed science journal, showed that the early summer heat wave in Europe was made at least five times more likely to occur in the current climate than if human-caused warming had not occurred.