Tourists shelter from the sun with umbrellas near the Colosseum in Rome as Italy is hit by a heatwave. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images
Greek authorities were forced to shut the Acropolis, while Italy braced for what could be the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Europe as deadly heatwaves swept the continent.
“Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Poland are all facing a major heatwave with air temperatures expected to climb to 48 degrees Celsius on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia – potentially the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Europe,” the European Space Agency said in a statement.
Red alerts for heat were issued for 16 Italian cities for Saturday, with forecasts suggesting temperatures could even climb as high as 49 degrees in places, as a heatwave named Charon after the ancient Greek ferryman of the dead came immediately on the back of a previous wave called Cerberus, after the mythical multi-headed dog that guards the entrance to the underworld.
The red alerts mean that even healthy people could be at risk from the heat, and the Italian government has advised those in the alert areas to avoid direct sunlight between 11am and 6pm. It has also warned people to take particular care of the elderly and the vulnerable.
In Greece, a tourist collapsed at the Acropolis “due to the heat” and was carried by stretcher to an ambulance, a video released by Greek police showed, as the ministry of culture announced that the monument would be closed for the safety of visitors and staff during the hottest hours of the day.
There have also been concerns that the heat could spark wildfires in the country, for which the Greek government has announced contingency plans. For the first time, a ban was placed on people working in the construction and delivery sectors during the hottest hours of the day. Employees in the public and private sectors in Athens were encouraged to work remotely.
The Croatian village of Grebaštica, a popular tourist destination, has been left devastated by wildfires with homes and property destroyed. Video: Reuters
In Spain, the Red Cross told people near wildfires to stay indoors and shut windows. A forest fire on the Canary Island of La Palma destroyed at least 140 hectares of land on Saturday morning, forcing the evacuation of at least 500 people.
Last week saw the world’s hottest average daily temperature on record, according to the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation, a fresh record that was set right after the agency recorded the hottest June since records began.
“The record-breaking temperatures on land and in the ocean have potentially devastating impacts on ecosystems and the environment,” the agency said in a statement. “They highlight the far-reaching changes taking place in Earth’s system as a result of human-induced climate change.”
A study published in the journal Nature this week estimated there had been 61,672 “heat-related deaths” in Europe in the summer of 2022.
Tourists and locals in southern Europe have been warned to avoid activity outside in the hottest hours of the day, and to take particular care of small children, people with health conditions, and the elderly.
There was an outcry by unions over the death of a 44-year old man who had been painting road markings on an unshaded street in northern Italy as temperatures exceeded 40 degrees.
Meanwhile in the southern Spanish region of Mallorca, a 47-year-old security guard collapsed and died in a suspected case of heat stroke, following the earlier deaths of two men who had been working on farms in separate incidents.
Tens of thousands of Irish tourists are due in affected areas next week. More than 900 flights are due to leave Dublin Airport next week for some of the affected countries, according to the Dublin Airport Authority.
The development of El Niño conditions, a natural phase of planetary warming that lasts from nine months to a year, is expected to compound extreme weather and average temperatures that have increased significantly since the pre-industrial era.
“We are in uncharted territory and we can expect more records to fall as El Niño develops further and these impacts will extend into 2024,” said the WMO’s director of climate services Christopher Hewitt. “This is worrying news for the planet.” - Additional reporting Guardian