The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Astronaut watches Europe dry up from space during scorching summer heat wave

A photo taken by German astronaut Alexander Gerst shows weather patterns converging and what appears to be a band of fire around Monchique in drought-stricken Portugal. (ALEXANDER GERST/AFP/Getty Images)
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BERLIN — German astronaut Alexander Gerst grew up in a time when one of the country’s most popular songs proclaimed that “above the clouds . . . everything that seems important and big to us becomes small and trivial.”

But that optimistic view of an astronaut’s life can come crashing to Earth when you’re circling the globe from 254 miles up and start noticing how the world’s Northern Hemisphere is gradually turning from lush green to dry brown.

“Just had a chance to take my first photos of dried-out Central Europe and Germany since a few weeks, and was shocked,” Gerst wrote on Twitter. “What should have been green, is now all brown. Never seen it like this before,” he wrote, posting photos from the International Space Station.

Over the following days, Gerst tweeted more photos showing detailed views of areas affected by drought and heat, including Portugal, where firefighters continued to battle blazes across the country on Thursday.

Gerst later tweeted a striking comparison with photos from a prior Space Station stint in summer 2014, when Europe’s forests and fields were still pleasantly green.

Ahead of summer 2014, meteorologists had predicted a similar heat wave, but temperatures remained mostly normal.

This year, the warnings turned out to be correct, though. Widespread droughts and record temperatures have left scars across Europe, North America and Asia — from massive wildfires across Siberia to blazes in Greece that left dozens dead.

Britons were the first to point out that their royal parks had turned into yellow-brownish wastelands, amid an absence of the precipitation that’s so deeply associated with the country.

Summer temperatures for 2018 have broken records around the world. The heat means losses in some industries, but in other sectors, it has been a boon. (Video: Reuters)

Across Europe, temperatures reached or exceeded the 100s (Fahrenheit) this summer, posing a deadly risk. Only 3 to 5 percent of European households are air-conditioned, compared with almost 90 percent of households in the United States.

European authorities see links between the unusual heat and global warming, predicting far more unusually hot summers in the future. With no end to the heat wave in sight, astronaut Gerst and his colleagues might be well advised to stay in space until it’s all over.