Overheated Europe struggles with drought

Switzerland is experiencing its hottest summer in 250 years.

When you are not used to warm weather, the heat can stir some unusual impulses, as Finnish President Tarja Halonen showed the other night.

Inspired by the balmy evening air, the head of state appeared onstage at the end of a James Brown concert last week to dance with the self-styled Godfather of Soul, earning roars of approval from the audience.

More predictably, tourists in Rome, stripped to the scanty minimum, have been trying to take dips in Trevi Fountain. And they are being denied entry to St. Peter's Basilica, where vendors do a brisk trade in paper pants and vests to bring sightseers in line with the Vatican's decency code.

But in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, a heat wave that has broiled the Continent for several weeks is having more worrying effects, especially on farmers watching their crops and pastures shrivel under a cruel sun in the worst drought for more than a quarter of a century.

"There has been nothing like this since 1976," says French Agriculture Ministry spokesman Patrick Tallon.

The government has named a "Mr. Drought" to head a crisis team at the ministry.

Already, the state railway system has been ordered to ship emergency supplies of fodder to cattle and sheep herds in the worst hit southern areas of the country, and firefighters are battling blazes in France and beyond.

European grain harvests are not in yet, but farmers in Spain, Italy, France, and Germany are predicting unusually low yields. An Austrian farmer's group warned last week that corn and grain harvests could be down as much as 60 percent from normal levels.

The drought has also struck at specialty crops that define some European regions' identities. Truffle growers in the Southwest of France, for example, say that without rain soon, their highly trained pigs will sniff out none of the "black diamonds" that normally sprout from the roots of oak trees in the autumn.

Italian fruits and vegetables - found on market stalls all over the continent - are rising in price as growers watch their produce wither. Italy has been particularly hard hit by a prolonged drought that has seen the once mighty River Po drop by 23 feet, denying major power stations along its banks the water they need to cool their turbines.

The Italian power grid was forced 10 days ago to order the first power cuts for 20 years, as Italians overstretched dwindling supplies of electricity by turning on their fans and air conditioners in record numbers.

Some people, of course, are benefiting from the unusual heat, or at least enjoying it. Sales of inflatable swimming pools in France - where the mercury fell to a comfortable 79 degrees F. in Paris yesterday - have skyrocketed, and vendors equipped with plastic buckets full of ice have been fleecing tourists in Paris ready to pay more than $2.50 for a cooling 12-oz. bottle of mineral water.

Meanwhile, more than half a million people have flocked to the artificial beach that opened Saturday on the banks of the River Seine, where 3,000 tons of sand and hundreds of deckchairs offer a seaside experience to Parisians unable to get out of town.

Some holidaymakers have died in weather-related disasters: four were killed by a freak storm that ravaged France's southwestern beaches last week, and a German man fell off the roof where he had been sleeping to escape the heat.

Seventy climbers had to be rescued from the Matterhorn last week in one of the biggest emergency operations of its kind, when multiple rockfalls trapped them on the Alpine peak.

Those avalanches, scientists believe, occurred because the permafrost that normally holds the mountain together is melting in the face of global warming - especially in the hottest summer in Switzerland since records began 250 years ago.

Global warming is also helping to heat the Mediterranean Sea, which is now as warm as the Caribbean in some places, and hosting similar sorts of wildlife.

Poisonous puffer fish have found their way through the Suez Canal, according to Italian marine scientists, along with clown triggerfish.

Meteorologists are divided, however, on whether global warming is to blame for this year's drought and heat wave.

"It is impossible to link a specific weather event like a drought or a storm to global warming," says Dominique Marbouty, head of operations at the European Centre for Medium Term Weather Forecasts in Britain.

But some of the extreme temperatures that are challenging Europeans this summer may be chalked up to overall climate change, suggests Jerome Lecou, a forecaster with the French meteorological service.

"Global warming seems to amplify normal climatic variations," he says. "It is normal to have heat waves in summer, but we are often close to record temperatures nowadays and the fact that it is 40 degrees rather than 37 (Celsius) could be partly due to the way climate change accentuates the extremes."

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