Land temperatures on the rise, weather fluctuations more severe, Europe space chief says

As the latest wave of wildfires and heat warnings challenges the continent, the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) is warning economic damage from heat waves and drought could dwarf Europe's energy crisis as he called for urgent action to tackle climate change.

Currently, dry conditions are challenging French firefighters and Germany's shipping industry

A cargo ship travels on the Rhine River on Wednesday in Bonn, Germany. The ongoing hot weather and lack of rain have caused water levels on the Rhine and several other German rivers to fall, which is complicating shipping. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

The head of the European Space Agency (ESA) is warning economic damage from heat waves and drought could dwarf Europe's energy crisis as he called for urgent action to tackle climate change.

Director General Josef Aschbacher told Reuters successive heat waves along with wildfires, shrinking rivers and rising land temperatures as measured from space left no doubt about the toll on agriculture and other industries from climate change.

"Today, we are very concerned about the energy crisis, and rightly so. But this crisis is very small compared to the impact of climate change, which is of a much bigger magnitude and really has to be tackled extremely fast," he said.

More than 57,200 hectares have been swallowed by wildfire in France this year, nearly six times the full-year average. Firefighters were battling a wildfire in southwestern France on Wednesday, which forced the evacuation of about 8,000 people and destroyed at least sixteen houses. A major highway near the city of Bordeaux was closed on Wednesday afternoon due to the fire.

Meanwhile, a four-day "extreme heat" warning came into force in parts of England and Wales on Thursday, with temperatures poised to top 35 C in another heat wave that could cause wildfires and pressure water supplies and transport services.

'Tinderbox dry' grass: London official

The Met Office raised its forecast for fire severity in London and other parts of England over the next few days to "exceptional," or Level 5, its highest.

"The grass in London is tinderbox dry and the smallest of sparks can start a blaze, which could cause devastation," London Fire Brigade Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Smith said on Thursday.

A cut-off water basin with dead trees is exposed Wednesday at Colliford Lake, where water levels have severely dropped, exposing the unseen trees and rocks at Cornwall's largest lake and reservoir, in Cornwall, England. The Met Office has issued an amber warning for extreme heat for parts of England and Wales. (Ben Birchall/PA/The Associated Press)

The brigade, which faced its busiest week since the Second World War during a separate heat wave last month in Britain, said it had tackled 340 grass, rubbish and open land fires in the first week of August, compared with just 42 in the same week last year.

During July's heat wave, Britain, which is less used to such high temperatures, faced power outages, damage to airport runways and rail tracks, and dozens of blazes in London that destroyed properties and vehicles.

"Of course, you always have weather fluctuations … but never of this magnitude. There is no doubt in my mind that this is caused by climate change," Aschbacher told Reuters.

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Western Europe copes with drought, wildfires brought on by extreme heat

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Europe's latest heat wave has farmers scrambling to save their livelihoods as wildfires and drought wreak havoc.

Water levels on the Rhine River could reach a critically low point in the coming days, German officials said Wednesday, making it increasingly difficult to transport goods — including coal and gasoline.

Weeks of dry weather have turned several of Europe's major waterways into trickles. Transporting goods by inland waterways is more important in Germany than in many other western European countries, according to economic research company Capital Economics.

Rhine water levels 'quite dramatic'

Authorities predict that water levels at Kaub, Germany, will dip below the mark of 40 centimetres early Friday and keep falling over the weekend. While this is still higher than the record low of 27 centimetres seen in October 2018, many large ships could struggle to safely pass the river at that spot, located roughly mid-way along the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz.

"The situation is quite dramatic, but not as dramatic yet as in 2018," said Christian Lorenz, a spokesperson for the German logistics company HGK.

An overhead look at a body of water with two ships.
Transport vessels are shown on Tuesday navigating the Rhine, with partially dried riverbeds, near Bingen, Germany. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Due to the lack of water, ships bringing salt down the Rhine River from Heilbronn to Cologne that would normally carry 2,200 metric tonnes of cargo are only able to transport about 600 tonnes, he said.

Authorities are taking steps to shift more goods traffic onto the rail network and, if necessary, give it priority, said Tim Alexandrin, a Transport Ministry spokesman.

Those other options will be more expensive and take longer, with the higher cost making it impossible in some cases, said Andrew Kenningham, chief Europe economist for Capital Economics.

HGK and other shipping companies are preparing for a "new normal" in which low water levels become more common as global warming makes droughts more severe.

"There's no denying climate change and the industry is adjusting to it," said Lorenz.

WATCH | Activists take climate protest to dry banks of Danube River in Romania:

Climate activists protest on dry banks of Danube River

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Greenpeace activists dragged signs and kayaks into the parched banks of the Danube River in Romania to urge the government to take action against climate change.

Land surface temperature rising

According to Aschbacher, soaring air temperatures are not the only problem. The Earth's skin is getting warmer too.

Aschbacher said ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-3 satellite series had measured "extreme" land surface temperatures of more than 45 C in Britain, 50 C in France and 60 C in Spain in recent weeks.

Land surface temperature drives air circulation.

"It's really the whole ecosystem that is changing very, very fast and much faster than what scientists expected until some years ago," he said.

"It is drought, fires, intensity of storms, everything coupled together, which are the visible signs of climate change."

Europe's latest record-breaking heat wave is sparking some real climate anxiety. Wildfires have spread rapidly across the continent, while soaring temperatures have warped roads and caused train tracks to buckle. More than 1,000 people have died due to the heat in Spain and Portugal alone. With extreme weather events on the rise, some wonder if what is happening in Europe will finally jolt leaders into action on climate change. Featuring: Zia Weise, climate reporter, Politico Europe

As changes in temperature also become more marked, winds become stronger and unleash harsher storms.

"Typhoons are much more powerful than they used to be in terms of wind speed and therefore damage," Aschbacher said.

Together, ESA's six families of Sentinel satellites aim to read the planet's "vital signs" from carbon dioxide to wave height or temperatures of land and oceans.

Aschbacher told Reuters that failing to heed warnings like this year's weather crisis could cost hundreds of trillions of dollars this century.

With files from The Associated Press

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