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Sicily soars to 120 degrees, potentially setting Europe all-time heat record

People find comfort in sea breeze at the Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks), a rocky cliff on the coast of Realmonte, in southern Sicily, Italy, on Wednesday. (Salvatore Cavalli/AP)
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Amid a sweltering summer in which scores of long-standing heat records have fallen across the Northern Hemisphere, Europe may have just registered its highest observed temperature.

A weather station in Syracuse on the island of Sicily, Italy, recorded a blistering temperature of 119.8 degrees Wednesday, which would establish a new European heat record if verified by the World Meteorological Organization. The previous verified European record of 118.4 degrees was established in Greece on July 10, 1977.

The extreme heat comes during what will probably be the most intense and lasting heat wave of this summer for the island, according to the Sicilian Agrometeorological Information Service (SAIS), which operates the station that posted the record-breaking temperature.

Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist who tracks weather records around the globe, told the Capital Weather Gang that the weather station that recorded the temperature used high-quality instrumentation and is well-maintained.

Syracuse is a city in southeast Sicily, known for its ancient ruins, and is home to about 120,000 people. Excessively hot conditions covered much of the island Wednesday, with widespread high temperatures exceeding the century mark in its central and southern areas.

SAIS said temperatures will probably not drop off until winds cool the island Friday.

Conditions for the heat wave began earlier this week. A zone of upper-level high pressure strengthened over southern Europe, the Mediterranean and northern Africa, creating a heat dome over the region.

What is a heat dome?

Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, experienced its highest temperature on record Tuesday, also soaring to about 120 degrees. On Wednesday, Kairouan, a city in Tunisia’s northern inland desert, hit 122.5 degrees, the country’s hottest reliably measured temperature in modern records, according to Etienne Kapikian, a meteorologist with Meteo France. Reuters reported power outages as more people used air conditioners and added extra stress on the electricity systems.

The heat probably intensified the devastating wildfires in Algeria on Tuesday that killed 42 people.

Wildfires in Algeria kill 42, including two dozen soldiers

The heat dome is forecast to remain parked over southern Europe and northern Africa into early next week, peaking in intensity Thursday and Friday before slowly easing.

Italian officials issued serious health warnings and wildfire alerts because of the heat. Spain issued a special weather warning anticipating extreme temperatures Friday and Saturday.

Extreme heat waves have plagued southern Europe this summer. Earlier this month, numerous locations in Greece set record highs during its worst heat wave in more than three decades. The heat waves have helped stoke devastating wildfires that have destroyed tens of thousands of acres in Greece, Italy, Tunisia and Turkey.

The photos of Greece on fire are shocking. But shock doesn’t always lead to change.

As global temperatures rise, scientists predict these types of extreme weather events will become more common. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated that climate change has increased the frequency and severity of heat extremes and drought, notably in the Mediterranean. The report projects heat waves and dry conditions will continue to increase in the region, increasing the risk of fires.

Extreme weather tormenting the planet will worsen because of global warming, U.N. panel finds