Over the past week, Sahara Desert-like weather conditions marched north into Spain and Portugal. This extreme, abnormal heat brought with it a rash of severe wildfires. And, unfortunately, these are exactly the kinds of conditions we should expect to see more and more of as a result of human-forced climate change.
(Wildfire consumes homes, businesses and vehicles on Madeira Island, Portugal on August 10, 2016. Meanwhile, scores of wildfires are also burning over the mainland. Video Source: CV.)
Yesterday, the temperature hit a hot, dry 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) just west of Lisbon, Portugal — temperatures more typical to the Sahara desert hundreds of miles to the south. On any normal August day, this Atlantic coastal town would expect to see readings around 28 C (83 F).
To the north, a sprawling heat dome of high pressure has tucked beneath a big jet stream wave for much of the past week. Pulled poleward by near record-low sea ice extents, this atmospheric brute — one of a new breed made stronger and thicker by human-forced warming of the atmosphere — funneled in brisk winds even as it baked Portugal’s lands and islands day after day.
4,200 Firefighters Mobilized
Fires, already sparking in the extreme heat, expanded and multiplied. By Wednesday, more than 180 of these blazes raged over both Portugal and its island archipelago of Madeira.
(NASA satellite shot shows large wildfires burning over Portugal and Spain on August 10, 2016. For reference, width of bottom edge of frame represents 250 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
On mainland Portugal scores of fires cut roads and power lines. Whole villages were emptied as the blazes encroached, numerous homes were destroyed and one life was tragically lost. Everywhere, firefighters scrambled to get a toehold in containing multiple out-of-control fires with a massive mobilization that included more than 4,200 emergency personnel from across the country.
This abnormally tough-to-control fire situation spurred Portuguese officials to seek aid from the EU. The request drew a swift response from Spain as well as Italy, which immediately sent three fire suppression aircraft to aid in the massive effort.
Southwest across the Atlantic, the Portuguese island of Madeira, one of several islands in the Madeira Archipelago, was also burning. Abnormally hot conditions over the past week with 35 C (95 F) temperatures and strong, dry winds had fanned large fires running across the island. By Tuesday, Archipelago capital city Fuchal saw numerous fires rushing toward town. Both firefighters and the military mobilized, but this combined effort was unable to prevent the fire from entering the town. Three people were tragically caught up in the blazes as 40 homes burned and a famous five-star hotel was consumed to its foundations.
(Fires cover large sections of Madeira, a Portuguese island, on August 10, 2016. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
As of this afternoon, fires still rage around Madeira. One thousand people have been evacuated from the island and emergency officials are still scrambling to deal with a difficult-to-control fire situation. Many visitors not already evacuated were reported to be sheltering in a local sports stadium.
An ‘Abnormal Fire Situation’ in the Context of Climate Change
Like many regions of the world, Portugal experiences an annual fire season. However, this year’s fires are far more extensive, they rage under hotter-than-normal temperatures, and they are being fanned by strong, dry winds. In short, 35-40 C readings are not normal for any time of year in Portugal. The fire conditions, therefore, are far worse than what Portugal typically experiences. But in the new world forced to warm by human greenhouse gas emissions, such conditions, along with a much more extreme wildfire potential, are far more likely to occur.
(During 2003, Europe experienced a massive heat wave that produced thousands of heat-related deaths. In 2015 another strong, but somewhat less intense, heat wave hit Europe in July. This year, abnormal heat is sparking wildfires across Portugal. These are the kinds of new extremes that Europe can expect to see more and more of as human-forced climate change causes Sahara Desert-like weather conditions to march northward. Image source: NOAA.)
Fires happen almost every summer in Portugal — just not fires like these. It is obvious from Portugal’s requests for assistance that the large number and extreme intensity of the fires has saturated Portugal’s emergency firefighting capability. Prime Minister Antonio Costa, in a news conference earlier today, starkly stated: “This abnormal situation surpasses the normal response capacity of our forces.”
It is worth noting that these fires have not yet reached the extent of the 2003 blazes. Back then, a massive European heatwave that many scientists have attributed to human-forced climate change helped to spark wildfires that killed 19 people and burned fully 10 percent of Portugal’s forests. But it’s clear the 2016 fires are already among the worst Portugal has ever experienced — and this fire event isn’t yet finished. Over the coming week, temperatures are expected to range from 35 to 42 C, providing no hint of relief in an already dangerous fire situation.
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