PARIS — A historic heat wave inflicted life-threatening temperatures on Europe and shattered all-time highs in multiple countries on Thursday.
Thermometers in Paris registered a jaw-dropping 108.7 degrees, according to Météo-France, the national weather service, breaking the previous record of 104.7 degrees set in 1947.
Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all saw new national records on Thursday, beating highs set just the day before — with the Netherlands exceeding 104 degrees for the first time in recorded history.
Britain came just shy of its record. The Met Office in Cambridge measured 100.6 degrees in Cambridge on Thursday. And London experienced its hottest day ever recorded in July, with temperatures recorded at 98.2 degrees.
Those temperatures may not seem shocking by the standards of many regions in the United States, but in Europe, where air conditioning is relatively uncommon, they can be deadly.
“No one is safe in such temperatures,” said Agnès Buzyn, France’s health minister. “This is the first time that this affects departments in the north of the country. . . populations that are not accustomed to such heat.”
The heat wave has been caused by a massive area of high pressure extending into the upper atmosphere, also known as a heat dome, that has temporarily rerouted the typical flow of the jet stream and allowed hot air from Africa to surge northward.
This system is set to migrate further north by the weekend, parking itself over Scandinavia and possibly breaking records in Norway and Sweden before making a run at the Arctic, where it could accelerate the melting of already anemic sea ice.
In Europe on Thursday, the impact of climate change was felt intimately.
In Paris, the heat reverberated off the pavement and the city’s iconic stone facades. In an experiment, it took 10 minutes for a chocolate Eiffel Tower to melt in the sun.
Although this is high tourist season, major attractions such as the Place de la Concorde and Luxembourg Gardens were eerily deserted. People piled into movie theaters — in some cases for films they didn’t especially want to see — because those were some of the only places to find air conditioning.
Twenty of France’s administrative departments — from Paris north toward the English Channel — were placed on the highest possible alert level.
Elisabeth Borne, France’s minister of sustainable development, urged citizens to cancel or postpone all unnecessary travel. The SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, allowed customers to exchange or cancel free of charge any Thursday travel to the 20 northern regions particularly affected.
In much of Europe, air conditioning has been seen as a luxury, and even an American-style indulgence. Until now, fewer than five percent of all European households have air-conditioning, compared with 90 percent in the United States. But that may be shifting as episodes of punishing heat become the new normal.
“We are in a situation where people cannot live,” said Sacha Gaillard, a technician with Les Bons Artisans, a French company that, among other things, installs air conditioners.
“[People] can’t sleep at their apartments. Air conditioning is no longer a comfort. It’s a necessity. It’s as if people had no heat in winter,” Gaillard said, noting that the company’s air conditioning business across France has increased exponentially in the past five years.
Europe’s air-conditioner stock is estimated to roughly double within the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as record heat becomes more frequent.
Still, some Europeans object that air conditioning is precisely the wrong response to crippling heat waves triggered by climate change. HVAC systems consume a lot of power and release hot air, which can exacerbate the heat island effect in cities and intensify cooling demands.
There also bureaucratic concerns. Many residential buildings in cities such as Paris are centuries old and classified as landmarks. Their facades cannot easily be altered without the express permission of city hall or an architectural union under the auspices of the Culture Ministry.
“Nine times out of 10, you’re not allowed to drill through the walls,” said James Devlin, a British man who runs James’Clim, an air conditioning installation service in Paris. He said that because the restrictions in Paris are extensive, most of his installations take place in the suburbs and surrounding area.
“If it’s not a listed building, they’re still very restricted. You don’t have a place to put the unit on the exterior,” he said.
Cost, too, can be prohibitive. For a family-sized Paris apartment of roughly 1,070 square feet, Devlin said that installing air conditioning could cost from 12,000 to 16,000 euros ($13,300 to $17,700). Even so, in the past five to six months, he said, he has had an installation almost every day. On Wednesday, the first day of the intense heat this week, he received more than 40 calls for consultations.
In the meantime, cities are coordinating impromptu measures for residents to cool off. Paris, for instance, has designated air-conditioned rooms in each arrondissement, or district, as well as outdoor swimming areas and parks that stay open around the clock.
In Germany on Thursday, Anton Hofreiter, leader of Germany’s Green Party in parliament, complained that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was not doing enough to support those most vulnerable to the heat.
European Greens have seen a surge in support, partially reflecting an emphasis on the need to decrease emissions and combat climate change.
In a proposal reported by the news magazine Der Spiegel, German Green Party officials are pushing for a “right to home office” for all employees and a “right to be given the day off in case of excessively hot weather” for employees working outside.
Long-term, human-caused climate change makes extreme-heat events like this one more likely, more severe and longer-lasting, according to numerous scientific studies.
In the wake of Europe’s first heat wave of the summer, in early July, scientists performed an analysis that showed human-caused climate change made the event at least five times more likely to occur.
Some scientists, including Michael Mann of Penn State University, tell The Washington Post that such studies actually understate global warming’s influence on heat waves by failing to incorporate how warming is altering the flow of upper level winds known as the jet stream. Such changes both raise the likelihood of extreme events and make them far more potent, Mann says.
Globally, 2019 is on its way to being one of the top five hottest years since record-keeping began in the late 19th century. And, in part because of the hot weather in Europe, July may rank as the hottest month on record. June 2019 was already the hottest June to date.
Europe’s heat wave coincided with a visit of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to France earlier this week. She addressed the National Assembly on Tuesday, delivering a speech that was boycotted by far-right politicians.
“You don’t have to listen to us,” Thunberg said in her address, “but you do have to listen to the science.”
Freedman reported from Washington. Rick Noack in Berlin, Jennifer Hassan in London and Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.