Heatwave forces Germany to limit highway speeds

A couple cooling off in a lake at Schwarzachtalseen recreation centre in Ertingen, southern Germany, yesterday. The heatwave is the second to hit Europe this year.
A couple cooling off in a lake at Schwarzachtalseen recreation centre in Ertingen, southern Germany, yesterday. The heatwave is the second to hit Europe this year. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

FRANKFURT • A blistering heatwave prompted Germany to impose speed restrictions on usually limit-free stretches of its high-speed motorways yesterday, the latest sign of extreme weather events ruffling Europe's largest economy.

The state authorities are reducing speeds to as low as 100kmh on some stretches because of fears that the unusually high temperatures could create potentially deadly cracks on autobahn surfaces, a highway agency spokesman said.

Temperatures in Germany yesterday were expected to surpass a June high of 38.2 deg C, according to the country's DWD weather service. The all-time record of 40.3 deg C, set in July 2015, could also be broken.

Meteorologists blame climate change for sending a blast of air from the Sahara desert into Western Europe.

The sweltering heat echoes a sustained drought across Germany last year that halted shipping on the Rhine river, hampered power generation, sparked forest fires and forced the country to import grain for the first time in 24 years.

Rising temperatures are making violent convective storms more likely, mirroring a trend in the United States Midwest.

Changes to the jet stream, which normally blows in cooler weather from the Atlantic Ocean, are contributing to "the build-up of hot and dry conditions over the continent, sometimes turning a few sunny days into dangerous heatwaves", said Dr Dim Coumou, a climatologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

The early summer heat has already sparked wildfires outside Berlin.

In Paris, volunteers distributed water to homeless people after the French government closed schools and activated a contingency plan to protect residents.

The Red Cross warned that excessive heat could cause dizziness, convulsions and hallucinations, especially among older people.

Electricity prices across the continent surged on expectations that people would turn on fans and air-conditioning units to keep cool.

Europe's heat in June - part of a string of extraordinary weather patterns, including temperatures of more than 50 deg C in India that killed over 180 people - is the latest reminder of the tangible effects of climate change.

With those risks harder to ignore, environmental concerns have rocketed up the political agenda.

Germany's Green party has eclipsed Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats to become the country's strongest party, according to some recent polls.

Political tensions are high. At the weekend, police forcibly removed protesters who stormed an open-pit coal mine owned by German utility RWE, Europe's biggest corporate emitter of carbon dioxide.

Demonstrators blocked railroads used to carry the fuel to nearby power plants, over what they see as the slow pace of Germany's plans to exit coal production.

"Nothing less than our future is at stake," said Ms Nike Malhaus, spokesman for protest group Ende Gelaende. "We are taking the coal phase-out into our own hands because the government is failing to protect the climate."

The heatwave is the second to hit Europe this year after a similar weather pattern pushed temperatures above 20 deg C for several days in February, sparking wildfires in northern England and the Alps.

Temperatures in Switzerland are about 10 deg C warmer than normal for this time of the year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The high temperatures mean glaciers will likely shrink further, increasing the likelihood that the Rhine will again be too shallow for shipping later this year, according to Switzerland's federal weather agency.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2019, with the headline Heatwave forces Germany to limit highway speeds. Subscribe