Europe withers under heatwave

A heatwave across much of Europe is starting forest fires, causing crops to wither and roads to melt, while fridges and fans are buckling in the searing sun.

From Russia’s Urals mountains to western Germany, a week of temperatures hovering stubbornly in the mid-30s Celsius has baked northern parts of Europe and forecasters are warning of more to come over the next week.

People were finding ways to beat the heat. There was the rare sight of women in bikinis sunbathing yesterday in Kolomenskoye park in Moscow, while other people tried to cool off by soaking themselves in fountains and playing in water jets in the Russian capital, Belarus and other parts of Europe.

But it has not been all fun and games. The air-conditioning systems on board the high-speed trains of Germany’s national rail operator Deutsche Bahn broke down several times. With locked windows, dozens of passengers were afflicted with heat exhaustion after spending hours trapped in temperatures of up to 50C.

The higher temperatures are being caused by an interaction between a zone of low pressure to the north-west of the United Kingdom and high pressure around the Mediterranean.

A batch of cooler air is scheduled to work its way slowly across France and into central Germany.

But heat waves may be here to stay.

US climate scientists said that June was a record-setting month in the temperature department, keeping the planet on a course for a hot year.

Worldwide, the average temperature in June 16.2C warmer than average for the month of June, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington. This year has had the warmest average temperature for the January-June period on record 12.2 C.

Russia’s worst droughts in a century have destroyed almost 25 million acres of crops in central and European areas. A state of emergency has been declared in 18 Russian provinces, where fire has engulfed more than 64,000 acres of forest.

The situation has been described as serious by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who oversees the agriculture sector. But he said authorities have the resources to cope. Various officials have tried to reassure the public that the country has enough grain stockpiled to rule out imports.

Germany’s Potato Industry Union, meanwhile, says it expects losses of 30% in this year’s harvest.

The Chamber of Agriculture of the Czech Republic estimates the grain harvest could by down by 10% compared with 2009.

Meanwhile, drowning deaths were up in Eastern Europe as people flocked to seas, lakes and rivers in search of a break from the blistering heat. More than 230 people died in the last week alone across Russia, with 21 perishing over two weeks in Latvia, according to officials, who cited the tendency of people to drink heavily while sunbathing. Last year, about 3,000 people drowned in Russia.

Blood reserves were dropping in Germany, with fewer donors able to travel to blood banks.

“We now only have reserves for one to three days,” German Red Cross spokesman Friedrich-Ernst Dueppe told the news agency DAPD.

The heat also took its toll on transport, with roads damaged and railway operators suffering.

A major road from Prague to Germany had to be closed for several days of repairs, and the Vodochody international airport north of Prague stopped accepting passenger flights after heat damage to the runway.

In the Baltic state of Estonia, several churches were being used as heat shelters, particularly for the elderly. A major grocery store in the capital, Tallinn, reported that all of its refrigerators containing dairy and meat products had succumbed to the heat. Local municipalities have closed public woodland areas in order to lower the risk of fire.

Stores in Finland, which reported a 75-year record of 34.2C, were quickly running out of fans and air conditioners. The same happened in Germany and Hungary, where the mercury hit 37C.

Europe’s weather comes on the heels of a record heat wave stifling much of the US Eastern Seaboard.

Philadelphia, Newark and Trenton, New Jersey hit 38C last week in weather that caused scattered power cuts throughout the region. The heat hampered train travel, forcing nursing homes with power problems to evacuate and buckled highways.

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