A blistering heatwave prompted Germany to impose speed restrictions on usually limit-free stretches of its high-speed motorways Wednesday, the latest sign of extreme weather events ruffling Europe’s largest economy.
State authorities are reducing speeds to as low as 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) on some stretches because of fears that the unusually high temperatures could create potentially deadly cracks on Autobahn surfaces, a highways agency spokesman said. Temperatures in Germany on Wednesday could surpass a June high of 38.2 degrees Celsius (101 Fahrenheit), according to the country’s DWD weather service. The all-time record of 40.3 degrees, set in July 2015, could also fall.
Meteorologists blame climate change for sending a blast of air from the Sahara desert into Western Europe. The sweltering heat echoes a sustained drought in 2018 across Germany that halted shipping on the Rhine River, hampered power generation, sparked forest fires and forced the country to import grain for the first time in 24 years. Rising temperatures are making violent convective storms more likely, mirroring a trend in the U.S. Midwest.
Changes to the jet stream, which would normally blow in cooler weather from the Atlantic Ocean, are contributing to “the build-up of hot and dry conditions over the continent, sometimes turning a few sunny days into dangerous heatwaves,” said Dim Coumou, a climatologist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
The early summer heat has already sparked wildfires outside Berlin. In Paris, volunteers distributed water to homeless people after the French government closed schools and activated a contingency plan to protect residents. The Red Cross warned that excessive heat could cause dizziness, convulsions and hallucinations, especially for older people. Electricity prices across the continent surged on expectations Europeans would turn on fans and air conditioning units to keep cool.
Europe’s heat in June — part of a string of extraordinary weather patterns including temperatures of more than 50 degrees in India that killed over 180 people — is the latest reminder of the tangible effects of climate change.
With those risks harder to ignore, environmental concerns have rocketed up the political agenda. Support for Germany’s Green Party has eclipsed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to become the country’s strongest party in some recent polls.
Political tensions are high. Over the weekend, German police forcibly removed protesters who stormed an open-pit coal mine owned by German utility RWE AG, Europe’s biggest corporate emitter of carbon dioxide. Demonstrators blocked railroads used to carry the fuel to nearby power plants over what they see as the slow pace of Germany’s plans to exit coal.
“Nothing less than our future is at stake,” said Nike Malhaus, spokeswoman for protest group Ende Gelaende. “We are taking the coal phaseout into our own hands, because the government is failing to protect the climate.”
The heatwave is the second to hit Europe this year after a similar weather pattern pushed temperatures above 20 degrees for several days in February, sparking wildfires in northern England and the Alps.
Temperatures in Switzerland are about 10 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The high temperatures means glaciers will likely shrink further, increasing the likelihood that the Rhine will again be too shallow for shipping later this year, according to Switzerland’s federal weather agency.
Meanwhile, Europeans are adapting to this week’s heat in ways large and small. Brussels has suspended horse-and-carriage rides for tourists. The decision was taken out of respect for the animals’ welfare, said Fabian Maingain, the Belgian city’s chief for economic affairs, told Le Soir newspaper. Similar decisions have been taken by Antwerp and Ostend.
In Hemer — a town about 35 kilometers (22 miles) southwest of Dortmund — a man on Saturday took off his clothes in a supermarket’s frozen-food department to escape the heat that is predicted to peak on Wednesday. After customers alerted staff, he grabbed a banana and a can of beer before attempting to flee the store, local police said on Twitter.
–With assistance from Ewa Krukowska, Francois de Beaupuy and Jesper Starn.