Temperatures have skyrocketed into the triple digits throughout Europe, breaking records for some of the hottest days that France, Germany, and Spain have recorded since a heat wave killed an estimated 70,000 people across the continent in 2003. Thermometers started clocking hellish temperatures on Wednesday, and some locations will have seen temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit by the time the heat wave subsides in the coming days.
Extreme heat in Catalonia in northeastern Spain is likely to blame for the worst wildfire in 20 years. The blaze may have started when a pile of manure “generated enough heat to explode and produce sparks,” according to regional interior minister Miquel Buch. The fire has now forced 50 people to evacuate their homes and has the potential to wipe out 50,000 acres of land.
The heat wave has caused paralysis and chaos all over the continent. Thursday saw France’s hottest day in the country’s history, at a high of 113.2 degrees. More than 4,000 schools across France have closed, and in Marseilles, Paris, and Lyons, the most polluting cars have been banned from hitting the roads. Still, the heat hasn’t stopped the Women’s World Cup from continuing , although spectators are now permitted to bring water bottles into the stadiums. In Germany, the famously unregulated Autobahn is now subject to speed limits ranging between 62 mph to 75 mph, which were imposed to prevent the roads from cracking under extreme pressure in the heat. All-time temperature records were also set in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Meteorologists say the heat wave originated with hot winds blowing up from Northern Africa that created high pressure in the central European atmosphere. That, combined with a storm brewing over the Atlantic Ocean, brought the oppressive conditions that have the continent in a stranglehold. In a grim illustration of what Europeans are up against, a French meteorologist posted a picture last week of a heat map that resembled a “screaming heat skull of death.”
The temperatures pose a serious health risk to people and animals, especially when much of the continent doesn’t have air conditioning. (Less than 5 percent of people in France have air conditioning in their homes, while the number is under 2 percent in Germany.) Now, three deaths have already been attributed to the heat wave, including a 72-year-old Romanian homeless man whose body was discovered on Thursday morning near Milan’s central train station.
In response, officials throughout Europe have canceled events, declared heat advisories, and set up cooling stations around their cities. Europeans have been plunging into public fountains, running naked down grocery store freezer aisles, and eating frozen treats in hopes of cooling down. At zoos, caretakers have been freezing fruits and vegetables into ice blocks to help the animals beat the heat.
Scientists warn that this heat wave is not a fluke. According to Stefan Ramsdorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the hottest summers since 1500 have all occurred in the past 19 years. Moreover, June is exceptionally early for Europe to see 100-plus-degree temperatures—heat waves this severe would typically arrive in July or August. It’s looking likely that these heat waves are the new normal.