PARIS - The heat wave sweeping Europe is a direct consequence of the warming of the earth's atmosphere, experts say.
"We are observing and suffering the first effects of global warming," Hervé Le Treut, meteorologist at the French Centre for Scientific Research told IPS.
"The emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are leading to higher temperatures all over the world, but these are observed in an irregular manner across the continents," he said. "The global weather is clearly disturbed."
Record temperatures of well over 35 degrees Celsius were recorded all over Europe this week. On Jul. 20 Paris and Berlin registered 39 degrees. In Belgium, Jul. 19 was the hottest day ever in July, with 37 degrees.
The July maximum temperature record was also broken in Britain. The mercury reached 36.5 Celsius at the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley in Surrey. The previous record for July, 36 degrees, was set in Epsom in 1911.
"Europa achicharrada", the weekly Spanish newspaper El Semanal declared, meaning "Europe burned to a crisp".
The heat wave has led to several deaths across Europe.
French minister of health Xavier Bertrand said Jul. 19 that at least nine people had died this summer, victims of the heat. "I ask everybody to be conscious of the health risks (of elderly people), because during the next days temperatures will remain so high that human organisms will not be able to recover rapidly," Bertrand said at a press conference in Paris.
In Spain, at least two heat wave deaths have been reported. Both victims were bricklayers, who died at work. In Germany and the Netherlands, four people died of cardio-vascular complications provoked by the heat.
But this year's death toll remains low compared to some 35,000 people who died across Europe in the heat wave of 2003. That year 15,000 people, mostly the elderly, died in France.
"The heat wave of 2003 reached its climax during August," Le Treut said. "This year temperatures have been over the average already during the spring. The hottest days are still ahead of us."
Another reason for the relatively low number of deaths this year is the warning system introduced by health authorities, especially in France. "After the drama of 2003 we prepared a vigilance plan which has been functioning since Jun. 1," Gilles Bruecker, director of the French Institute of Health Surveillance told IPS. "We wanted to anticipate the risks, and prevent any deaths."
The plan provides for particular attention to the elderly and children. A ban on intensive sports activity during the hottest parts of the day is in force all over the country. Water use is being rationed, with bans on filling private swimming pools, and controls on watering gardens. Britain has banned use of hosepipes.
More and hotter such summers lie ahead. Temperatures registered in Europe since 1900 show that there is now a larger number of hotter days every year. "The number of days with temperatures higher than 25 degrees is growing regularly," says Serge Planton, director of the Centre for Weather Research at Toulouse in France.
"On average, the temperature in Europe has grown about one degree since 1900, resulting in a climatic shift," Planton told IPS. "The greenhouse effect, provoked by the emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide, will lead to a warming of between 2.5 and 5 degrees in Europe towards the year 2100."
Most European experts see a similar scenario ahead. "A superficial review of temperature statistics in Europe shows that weather is getting warmer by the year," Franz-Josef Loepmeier, meteorologist at the German Weather Service told IPS. "We will not see palm trees grow in Germany, but summers will be hotter in the years to come, unless humankind as a whole does something consistent against global warming."
Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe, professor at the German Institute for Weather Research based in Potsdam near Berlin, agrees.. "The weather changes we are observing are mostly caused by human activities, especially the emission of greenhouse gases," he told IPS.
Gerstengarbe said that over the last century temperatures in Germany rose 0.8 degrees. "Over the next 75 years, we expect a warming of between 1.8 to 3..6 degrees for our region."
The heat is also taking its toll on agriculture, and affecting the generation of electricity, especially in nuclear power plants.
The lack of fresh water for the nuclear plants' cooling systems has led German private electricity suppliers to slow down their generators.
In France, the state-owned Electricité de France (EdF) was allowed to continue to drain hot water from the cooling system into rivers, although the water temperatures exceeded the limits imposed by environmental authorities. But output has had to be lowered.
EdF has been importing electricity to compensate the nuclear power plants' lower performance. Eighty percent of electricity generated in France is produced by nuclear power plants.
In Italy, hydroelectric plants have had to slow down due to a shortage of water in rivers.
European agriculture has also been hit by the heat wave and the drought.
In Germany, president of the association of farmers Gerd Sonnleitner told the press that this year's harvest on cereals would be 10 to 15 percent lower than in 2004, for which figures are available. "We had excellent expectations, but the heat and the drought have destroyed them."
In France farmers say the heat has damaged harvests. Livestock breeders said they have been forced to exhaust their forage reserves.
"This is the fourth successive drought we are suffering," Jean-Luc Poulain, commissioner for risks management at the French Association of Farmers told IPS. "We have not been able to reconstitute our stocks. And the situation gets worse by the day."
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service