Lucifer let loose! Why we may need to get used to summer 'heat domes'

Lucifer let loose! Snails frying in their shells, fish boiling in lakes, and forests ablaze across the Continent. As temperatures in Europe hit record highs, why we may need to get used to sizzling summer ‘heat domes’

  • Sicily experienced highest ever European temperature of 48.8 c (120 f) last week
  • Heat dome, named Lucifer, ignited catastrophic wildfires and destroyed crops
  • They were once so rare scientists had called them ‘once in 1,000 years’ events 

Giusy Pappalardo, a snail farmer in the Sicilian town of Floridia, realised that the summer heat was far more intense than normal when her charges began to boil alive inside their shells.

First, their feet would be burned by the soaring temperature of the soil and then, unable to move out of the blazing sunshine, their body temperature would rapidly rise to the point where they sizzled to death.

As Sicily experienced a temperature of 48.8 c (120 f) last week — the highest ever recorded in Europe — Pappalardo said of her snails: ‘They stop, and they die.’

An extreme weather phenomenon called a ‘heat dome’ has sparked widespread destruction across southern Europe, causing wildfires (pictured) 

She doubts even the snails that burrowed beneath the soil in a desperate bid to escape the killer heat will have survived.

And snails are not the only casualties. When her neighbour, Francesco Romano, a lemon grower, checked his fruit, he found that beneath the peel the flesh had been stewed into mush. 

These crop failures have been caused by an extreme weather phenomenon called a ‘heat dome’, which has sparked widespread destruction across southern Europe.

The heat dome has been named Lucifer — the ‘fire bringer’ — and for good reason. Apart from the devastation it has wreaked on the farmers of Floridia, it has ignited catastrophic wildfires, destroyed crops and livestock, and claimed untold thousands of heatstroke victims across the continent.

At one time, people could have taken consolation from the fact that such meteorological events were few and far between. 

Indeed, heat domes have formerly been so rare that scientists habitually called them ‘once in 1,000 years’ events.

But experts now predict that climate change will make them much more frequent. For heat domes are caused by soaring temperatures occurring in an area of high atmospheric pressure, called an anticyclone. 

The anticyclone makes the hot air sink instead of rise. As it descends, it becomes compressed, making it hotter still.

The heat dome has been named Lucifer and has claimed untold thousands of heatstroke victims across the continent (pictured, people trying to cool down in Rome, Italy) 

The intense heat increases the air’s ability to hold in moisture and, because of this, no sheltering clouds form. 

The broilingly humid air is trapped within the ‘dome’, bringing blistering temperatures to the area below.

While anticyclones are not unusual for this time of year, the Met Office warns that global warming will make them more frequent and more vicious.

‘With climate change, we are expecting, and are already seeing, more frequent and severe events, and will continue to do so in the future,’ says Met Office meteorologist Chris Almond.

In June, a heat dome over North America baked the Pacific Northwest and caused the highest temperature ever measured in Canada: 49.6 c (121.3 f).

The astounding heat is believed to have killed hundreds of people, and Christopher Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, estimated that more than a billion sea creatures, including the molluscs and clams that are so vital to filtering the sea and maintaining water quality, were also lost.

Oxford University climate experts warned in the online World Weather Attribution journal that global-warming trends mean that in two decades, heat domes will have multiplied from occurring once every 1,000 years to about every five to ten years.

Temperatures under heat domes are set to rise even higher, too, warns Professor Peter Stott, the Met Office lead on climate attribution.

‘Europe will need to prepare for the eventuality of further records being broken, with temperatures above 50 c [122 f] being possible,’ he predicts. 

That’s halfway to the temperature needed to boil water and well above that required to injure humans severely.

Under extreme heat, our bodies struggle desperately to cool themselves, resulting in heat cramps, heat exhaustion and, ultimately, heatstroke — which can cause permanent and even lethal damage to vital organs.

We lose excess heat mainly by sweating. But, often, that won’t work under a heat dome, because in high humidity our ability to lose heat by evaporation — sweating — plummets.

Experts now predict that climate change will make them much more frequent, and as temperatures rise they may injure humans severely (pictured, people trying to cool down in Rome, Italy)

In high humidity, temperatures as low as 35 c (95 f) can kill even the fittest people. Temperatures of 40 c (104 f) can be dangerous even in low humidity. And at 50 c (122 f) blood thickens and human cells start to cook. 

Our lungs become constricted and, as they lose function, our brains become starved of oxygen. 

Last year, scientists at the University of New South Wales in Australia measured heatwaves around the world from 1950 to 2000 and found that their frequency, duration, and cumulative heat had increased significantly.

The researchers’ report, published in the journal Nature Communications, says that in the Middle East and much of Africa, the number of heatwaves, and their intensity, has increased by 50 per cent every decade.

Lucifer, the heat dome that has had such a dramatic impact on southern Europe this month, was born over the deserts of North Africa before heading north. The heat forced the citizens of Floridia to spend the day sheltering indoors for fear of death.

To cope, they turned their air-conditioning systems up to full. Unfortunately, this had the effect of causing the local electricity supply to fail, sending indoor temperatures spiralling perilously.

Of course, the irony of everyone having their air-con at full blast is that the strain this puts on electricity-generating plants will only further increase global warming. As indeed will the many wildfires that Lucifer has ignited.

As temperatures in southern Europe continued to spiral, wildfires in Italy torched woodlands in the southern region of Calabria, destroyed pastures across Sicily and reduced forests in Sardinia to charcoal. Meanwhile, Greece is still smouldering from its worst wildfires in decades.

On Evia, a large island near Athens, two fire fronts have destroyed thousands of hectares of land, along with a large number of houses and businesses.

More than 2,000 people had to be evacuated, with elderly residents carried on to ferries. The wildfires there and elsewhere add up to the nation’s worst ecological disaster in decades.

And things will only get worse, according to Costas Kadis, environment minister of nearby Cyprus. As farmers abandon the unequal struggle to grow crops on scorched land, unworked pasture is being overrun by wild growth, making it tinder for fires.

‘Longer, more regular heatwaves are making these fires ever more intense, destructive and frequent,’ he said last week.

In Floridia, meanwhile, farmers such as Francesco Romano are considering planting avocados and other crops that can better withstand the heat.

Even in the sea, there is no refuge. Ecologists warn that the fish that provide a vital link in our food chain are at risk of suffocating in these temperatures.

As seawater grows warmer, fish need to consume more oxygen to survive. However, warm water holds less oxygen. In a massive artificial lake in northern France, nearly ten tons of fish were found dead last week after the water level fell from one metre to 80cm, and the water temperature spiralled to 29c (84f).

We would do well not to dismiss this Lucifer visitation as a meteorological quirk — it may well be an alarming vision of the future that is rapidly heading our way.

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