Heatwave in the Mediterranean
Wildfires were raging uncontrollably across Greece, Algeria and Tunisia this week, as the heatwave in the Mediterranean intensified. Stoked by gale-force winds – the inferno has destroyed cars, homes and livelihoods – and it had torn through thousands of acres of parched woodland by the middle of last week, forcing mass evacuations from the region.
Firefighters used water bomber aircraft in an effort to save the Greek industrial town of Mandra, and fought through the night to prevent the blaze reaching oil refineries near Corinth. In Athens, the Acropolis was temporarily closed to protect workers and visitors.
On the islands of Sardinia and Sicily in Italy, thermometers hit 45°C, and even approached 48°C in places – putting it close to the European record set in Sicily in 2021.
The hot and humid conditions were intensified a few weeks ago by a cloud of sand swept up from the Sahara by an anticyclone named “Cerberus” (after the three-headed dog from Greek mythology who is responsible for guarding the gates of hell). Subsequently, a second anticyclone named “Charon” (after the ferryman of the dead from Greek mythology) has traversed across southern Europe, exacerbating the conditions.
Last week, 16 Italian cities, including Rome and Florence, were placed on red alert, warning that all citizens – not only the vulnerable – were in danger of the heat. Health officials warned people to either stay under cover, or out of direct sunlight, between 11am and 6pm. In central Rome, police had to be stationed around the Trevi fountain to stop tourists and homeless people throwing themselves in.
Phones malfunctioned and at least two people are believed to have died as a result of the heat in Sardinia. In Spain, they recorded that between 21st June and 8th July – long before the most recent days of blistering temperatures – there had already been 309 deaths because of excessive heat. More than 40 people have died in Algeria, Italy and Greece as result of the fires – the majority, 34, in Algeria.
There have also been severe temperatures recorded in other parts of the world. China registered a record high of 52.2°C in Sanbao, and in Japan almost 4,000 people were taken to hospital with heatstroke in the first week of July. Temperature records have also been broken in the US. Heat health advisories were issued in many US states including Florida, California and Washington, and an all-time high of 48°C was recorded in Phoenix, Arizona.
What has caused the heatwave?
A study has concluded that increased temperatures from burning fossil fuels was the main driver for the more intense heatwave. It states that the extreme heat battering North America and Europe in July would have been “virtually impossible” without human-induced climate change, which also made the heatwave affecting parts of China 50 times more likely.
Palermo’s airport on Sicily was forced to shut as firefighters battled a blaze at its perimeter.
Where does aviation fit into this?
Flying is one of the fastest ways to burn fossil fuels and produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other emissions that cause the greenhouse effect which is warming our planet. The emissions produced by our sector are on a rapidly increasing trajectory. Whilst other sectors are decarbonising over time, and have low-carbon technology options available to transition away from the use of fossil fuels (e.g. electric vehicles for ground transport, and electric heat pumps for heating/cooling homes), aviation does not have any such options that will be possible at the scale required and in the time required. As such, the guidance from many respected and credible institutions such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the UK Climate Change Committee is that we will need to limit global air traffic in order to bring emissions down.
On the contrary, our sector is planning to embark on a massive increase in air traffic, with the number of planes in the sky projected to double before 2040. We think this is likely to fly us towards irreversible climate breakdown – causing major impacts to our planet, ecosystems, communities, and to our aviation industry itself.
How will climate breakdown impact aviation?
Most commercial airline flights are taken for leisure and tourism. If various regions of the world become uninhabited, or unlivable and unvisitable – tourism won’t continue. This doesn’t just include heatwaves, but it also increasingly includes water scarcity and famine caused by drought, flooding, unpredictable weather and crop failure.
Climate Impacts on Aviation from presentation on “How will climate change affect air travel?” by Prof. Paul Williams to ICAO
Here’s our quick summary of the other impacts facing aviation:
- Heatwaves prevent aircraft from taking off.
- Stormy weather can also disrupt flights, e.g. more than 3,000 flights were delayed or cancelled in the US in early July due to extreme weather and thunderstorms.
- Higher average temperatures reduce the payload/range capacity of airlines and increase maintenance costs for aircraft. Because an increased aircraft engine thrust setting is used, aircraft take-off/climb/landing noise is also likely to increase.
- Increased turbulence causes damage to aircraft and safety risks to cabin crew.
- Nature tourism attractions e.g. forests and coral reefs could be destroyed.
- Airport infrastructure and runways will go underwater due to sea level rise and increased storm frequency. This is already economically impacting airports such as San Francisco International Airport that is spending more than $1 billion building a high sea wall around its runway to counter rising sea levels.
- Energy prices and energy scarcity impact the cost and availability of fossil fuel and alternative non-fossil energy sources. This results in a major cost-of-living crisis which makes air travel unaffordable to anybody but the wealthiest elite in society.
- Air and noise pollution from aircraft impact health and reduce life expectancy of aviation workers and communities living near to airports.
Many airports are located close to sea level and in coastal locations, which makes them highly susceptible to sea level and flooding risks.
Climate change is already having a massive impact on the aviation sector, even if it doesn’t seem immediately apparent. Aviation workers were on the frontlines in responding to this heatwave: aircraft evacuated tourists and locals away from wildfires and flew firefighters in. Flights to Rhodes, and elsewhere, have been cancelled after wildfires spreading across the Greek island forced thousands to flee hotels, with the mayor saying some people had slept in cardboard boxes overnight and warning that there were not enough essentials.
The heatwave has also affected scheduled flights. Palermo’s airport on Sicily was forced to shut as firefighters battled a blaze at its perimeter. Two pilots died after a firefighting aircraft (a Canadair CL-215) crashed on the Greek island of Evia, seconds after the plane had dropped water over a wildfire. Safe Landing has spoken to a local from Evia who was watching one of the aircraft scoop water from the sea nearby and took this video:
Footage from Elisabeth Dimitras of a Canadair water bomber aircraft being used to battle Mediterranean blazes
How does climate breakdown impact society?
Elisabeth Dimitras, who lives on the Greek island of Evia, told us this:
“Rhodes has received the most news coverage the past weeks, but it’s not just Rhodes!! It’s Karystos in Evia too, Aigio, Lagonissi, Dervenohoria, Viotia, Corfu island, and so many more places. But internationally it’s only Rhodes mentioned, because of the tourists evacuated.”
“My very personal experience is that on Sunday 23rd July, I ran away with my partner and my dogs, from where we live in Central Evia, because it was 42°C and my solar panels can’t afford A/C (air conditioning). I am also experiencing water shortages due to draught, so I can’t even fill the air cooler with water and ice tubes (I live off the grid) and yet, where we wanted to go get some relief in a green area with a waterfall surrounded by tree shade, there was a wildfire (in Karystos, southern Evia island). So, we ended up on a beach, stranded, watching the firefighting aircraft picking up water from the sea (along with unlucky sea animals) and throwing it on the fire.” (The following day, one of the aircraft from the firefighting fleet crashed, killing both pilots).
“On Canadair (firefighting) aircraft, I would like to add that all year round I see them in the sky, practising…around Evoikos Bay, and I am always thinking about the fossil fuel used for those exercises….They are not only used when there are fires happening….”
“I love the idea of flying less and it’s basically what I am trying to achieve since I stopped travelling by plane (last time I flew was 2018), but my country is on fire every year during summer season, pretty much everywhere… As a result, many places we would have wanted to visit in the past, are now “unvisitable” because it’s unbearable to spend days somewhere where it’s too hot because there is no green space anymore. I sold my house in Athens to buy an olive grove in Central Evia where I put a tiny wooden house on wheels, almost 2 years ago, and ever since, I am trying to live as much self sustainably as possible by growing my food via vegan permaculture, but the more time is passing by, the more impossible it seems to be, to achieve this, due to climate crisis and the emerging challenges that this brings.”
“My best friend owns a vegan cafe restaurant in Athens and they had to keep the kitchen closed on Sunday because it was too hot to operate. They need more A/C machines to make it bearable in the shop but this has a cost to the Earth! Another cafe bar here, had its coffee machine being off due to overheating…in the midst of a high season time with many tourists visiting the area.”
“When I bought this land, I was planning a self-sustainable farm sanctuary. After participating in many evacuations of dog shelters threatened by wildfires though, and after consuming so much money in my pets and my survival, I no longer dream nor plan anything. I am just surviving.”
Aviation-induced tourism has further impacts to local people in ‘tourism destinations’ too:
- Loss of culture due to being forced out by businesses catering to alternative tourist preferences.
- Increasing land prices, house prices, and general cost-of-living due to burden of tourism visitor numbers.
- Erosion of public services such as public transport and hospital beds etc. which need to cater to tourists too.
- Water/food scarcity and increased prices due to tourism use from e.g. hotels and restaurants.
- Increasing climate impacts = heatwaves, drought, crop failure, flooding, sea level rise, loss of local ecosystems, land conflicts etc.
Elisabeth told us: “people in Greece have a really hard time in finding housing because properties are now owned by Israelis and Chinese, and building that were in the past full of Greek families are now turned into AirBnBs and the few Greeks who still live there, are bothered by suitcase noises and party noises from tourists staying in those flats. Otherwise the prices of the rents have skyrocketed.”
We’ll be covering many of these issues in future articles!
The deadly human cost of heat
The summer is far from over, and it will likely still be some time after that before we know the full cost to human life of this summer’s heat. A recent study concluded that the heatwaves during the summer of 2022 killed 61,000 people.
How does climate breakdown impact nature?
In Rhodes last week, a population of endemic deers was threatened: already some have been found dead by asphyxia, while the majority ran to the north of the island.
Tweet with the perspective from Deborah Meaden
Last summer, the “heat dome” that settled over western North America for five days is estimated to have killed more than 1 billion marine animals along Canada’s Pacific Coast, highlighting the vulnerability of ecosystems unaccustomed to extreme temperatures.
We’re sure everybody can remember the harrowing videos of Australia’s emblematic Koala bears struggling amidst devastating global warming-induced bushfires in early 2020. More than 61,000 koalas were among 3 billion animals, and 143 million mammals estimated to be affected by the bushfire crisis.
This isn’t normal. It’s abnormal. The planet is suffering. Humans are hurting. Plants, animals and ecosystems are being crushed. We stand to lose everything we hold dear.
When we fly, we aim to experience everything that is beautiful about our world and to connect families, friends and cultures. We need to stop tearing those things apart.