Europe is burning: What’s happening?
According to a Swedish research body, over the last 16 years instances of natural forest fires have increased by 7%, whilst other explanations such as lightning or human interference reduced greatly over this period. Frequency is up, too, especially in the South of the country.
Last week the Swedish government took the almost unprecedented step of asking for international assistance in tackling a spate of forest fires that were starting to reach an uncontrollable point. Thanks to extremely dry weather, little rain fall and an extreme heatwave, much of their countryside and forests have been turned into a delicate tinder box. A country known for its cooler climate, however, understandably doesn’t have quite the same resources for tackling large wild fires as other countries. In fact 50 wild fires were raging when the call went out and, perhaps the most perplexing of which, 12 of them were raging within the Arctic Circle.
In the past few days tragedy has struck Greece as it fights against the worst wild fires for generations, with the death toll exceeding 60 on Tuesday and is expected to rise steadily over the coming days. Horrifyingly, 26 bodies were discovered huddled together inside a seaside resort, having failed to reach the coast in their attempts to escape.
The extreme heat hasn’t just gripped Europe; most of the northern hemisphere is currently fighting heatwaves unseen for decades. In Toronto they’ve already recorded 18 days with a temperature exceeding 30 degrees Celsius compared with just 9 days recorded over the entire summer last year.
In Tokyo temperatures are starting to exceed 40 degrees Celsius on a regular basis as well as in other areas across the country, causing a public health crisis amongst the elderly who are suffering heat strokes, leading in some cases to death.
In Britain, uncomfortably close to our offices, the Greater Manchester Fire Service struggled for weeks to contain a large wild fire across the Saddleworth Moors, as well as a second that was allegedly lit by arsonists. Homes were evacuated in some areas of Tameside in disturbing scenes that would seem impossible to those used to the rainy Manchester climate.
Is climate change to blame? And are we at the stage where it would be advisable to panic? Perhaps.
Climate change, after all, tends to be a gradual increase in global temperatures resulting in slowly worsening weather extremes, rather than a sudden and debilitating heatwave and we must also consider that heatwaves aren’t particularly unusual, merely the scale of it.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dann Mitchell of Bristol University said “It is hard not to believe that climate change has to be playing a part in what is going on round the globe at present, however, we should take care about overstating climate change’s influence for it is equally clear there are also other influences at work.”
One of the aspects to consider is the jet stream, which is the system of either powerful or weak winds which operate between five and seven miles high in the atmosphere. When the winds are strong they can power storms and uncertain weather conditions but when they are weak they can allow certain weather conditions to linger uncomfortably long. According to the experts at Bristol University this is one of the main reasons for this year’s elongated hot weather, with extremely weak jet streams meaning that the hot weather isn’t being moved on.
Professor Adam Scaife, of the Met Office, said “The situation is very like the one we had in 1976, when we had similar ocean temperatures in the Atlantic and an unchanging jet stream that left great areas of high pressure over many areas for long periods”
It should be noted that 1976 was the year we last had a comparably hot summer, however, others have pointed out that even 1976 didn’t seem to have quite a prolonged and pronounced extreme.
The point that most seem to be raising is that whilst heatwaves and unexpected weather extremes aren’t unusual, what’s concerning them the most is that they’re becoming more frequent and pronounced. Whilst in 1976 we might have experienced a few weeks of very hot weather, we’re now looking at months at a time, and that appears to be driving devastating fires.
Regardless of the current causes it seems obvious that climate change is making severe weather more pronounced and more elongated. Sadly for the residents of Greece they appear to be paying the human cost of such negligence and our thoughts go to the victims of this tragic event.