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The Heat Is On, the Fires Are Burning


In June of this year, Europe experienced a severe heat wave. The heat returned in July. It was the hottest it has ever been. Massive wildfires are burning in Siberia and Alaska. In St. Louis, the temperature has been normal to a bit mild for summer, but in other parts of the world, the heat is on.

Figure 1. Source: European Space Agency.

In Europe, the immediate cause of the heat was high pressure over the Sahara Desert, pushing hot air northward over Europe. The first episode occurred in late June, and Figure 1 maps temperature on June 26. Southern Europe is usually warmer than Northern Europe, and indeed, the hottest temperatures were in Spain and Italy. Sporadic places in France and Germany got very hot, too: Veragues, France, hit 114.8°F on June 28, and Brandenberg, Germany, reached 101.5°.

Buildings in Northern Europe were not built to cope with extreme heat; most do not have air conditioning. When a heat wave struck in 2003, it killed 15,000 people in France. This time, they were more prepared: 4,000 schools closed, the authorities opened public cooling rooms, and swimming pools offered extended hours. Other countries took similar actions and, as a result, only 13 died.


Figure 2. Source: NOAA, July 25, 2019.

In July, the heat returned (Figure 2). A large swath of Northern France, Belgium, and The Netherlands topped out between 104 and 113°F. The high temperature in Belgium was 107.2°F, exceeding the previous record by 5.4°F. Two nuclear reactors in France had to be completely shut down, and 6 more had to curtail generation due to the heat. Thousands of animals died from the heat, as ventilators in barns were overwhelmed or transport trucks overheated. England set an all-time record maximum temperature on July 25, when the temperature hit 101.7 in Cambridge.





Figure 3. Source: NASA.

The heat is causing problems outside Europe, as well. Wildfires have broken out across the Arctic. Figure 3 shows the hotspots, as seen from space. This is a polar view, and it is upside-down: the North Pole is in the center near the bottom. Alaska is on the bottom left. The Aleutian Islands are at upper left, with Siberian Russia stretching across the top 1/2 of the image. Fires that can be sensed from space are in red.

As of August 2, 48 large wildfires were actively burning in Alaska, and they have consumed 1,604,724 acres. That is 2,507 square miles, roughly equal to half of Connecticut. Only 1 is contained.

It’s even worse in Siberia. Russian authorities state that 2.7 million hectares (6.67 million acres) are actively burning. It is hard to give meaning to a statistic like that, but it is an area larger than the entire State of Connecticut. This level of fire activity is unprecedented. Originally, Russian authorities did not try to fight the fires, as they were in hard-to-reach areas. Much of Siberia is hard to reach, actually, it is part of the reason the area has not developed more. Now, however, according to the New York Times, Russia has scrambled military transport planes and helicopters to fight the fires, as smoke impacts an ever wider area, including populated cities. These fires are likely to grow even larger before they subside.

Greenland experienced a record melt event in mid-June. As you may know, Greenland is a large island in the Atlantic Ocean. It is in the far north, being the second closest land to the North Pole. It’s very large ice sheet is second in size only to that of the Antarctic, and it has been melting (one of the causes of rising sea levels). Well, the European heat wave in June caused ice to melt over 270,000 square miles of the ice sheet, resulting in an estimated 80 billion tons of ice melting between June 11 and 20, the largest ice-melt event ever recorded this early in the season.

These sorts of events are on the increase. In 2010, wildfires in Russia caused an estimated $15 billion in damage. In 2003, a heat wave in France killed an estimated 15,000. In both cases, authorities were unprepared, because such things had never happened before. What’s going on?

The answer is simple, but unpleasant: climate change.

Here comes the future.


European Space Agency [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D The Heat Is On. Downloaded 8/2/2019 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_heat_is_on_(48138322288).jpg.

National Interagency Fire Center. Daily Report, 8/2/2019. Viewed online 8/2/2019 at https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm.

Russian Federal Forestry Agency, quoted in NASA. Siberian Smoke Heading Towards U.S. and Canada. July 30, 2019. Viewed online 8/2/2019 at https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2019/siberian-smoke-heading-towards-us-and-canada.

Nechepurenko, Ivan. 2019. “Russia Sends Military Planes to Fight Wildfires in Siberia.” The New York Times, 8/1/2019. Viewed online 8/2/2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/01/world/europe/russia-fire-siberia.html.

NASA. EOSDIS Worldview. Downloaded July 31, 2019 from https://worldview.earthdata.nasa.gov/?v=-4352508.653594771,-321536,2992636.6535947714,4007936&p=arctic&t=2019-07-31-T00%3A00%3A00Z&l=VIIRS_SNPP_CorrectedReflectance_BandsM11-I2-I1(hidden),MODIS_Aqua_CorrectedReflectance_Bands721(hidden),MODIS_Terra_CorrectedReflectance_Bands721(hidden),VIIRS_SNPP_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor,MODIS_Aqua_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor(hidden),MODIS_Terra_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor(hidden),VIIRS_SNPP_Thermal_Anomalies_375m_Night(hidden),VIIRS_SNPP_Thermal_Anomalies_375m_Day,MODIS_Terra_Thermal_Anomalies_All(hidden),MODIS_Aqua_Thermal_Anomalies_All(hidden),Coastlines.

National Snow & Ice Data Center. “A Record Melt Event in Mid-June.” Greenland Ice Sheet Today. Viewed online 8/4/2019 at https://nsidc.org/greenland-today/2019/07/a-record-melt-event-in-mid-june.

NOAA (Public domain). July 25 2019 Europe max temperatures.png. Downloaded 8/2/2019 from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/July_25_2019_Europe_max_temperatures.png.

Wikipedia contributors, “1995 Chicago heat wave,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1995_Chicago_heat_wave&oldid=906011873 (accessed August 2, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “2010 Russian wildfires,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2010_Russian_wildfires&oldid=892909422 (accessed August 2, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “June 2019 European heat wave,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=June_2019_European_heat_wave&oldid=908888400 (accessed August 2, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “July 2019 European heat wave,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=July_2019_European_heat_wave&oldid=908883144 (accessed August 2, 2019).

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