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HEATWAVE

Body stress, drought and borders: How the heatwave affects Switzerland

Persistent heat that Switzerland has been experiencing in the past few weeks is wreaking havoc on people, nature and infrastructure. This is how.

Body stress, drought and borders: How the heatwave affects Switzerland
Heat is damaging to car's batteries and engines. Photo by Jacob Jolibois on Unsplash

Having reached the highs of close to 40C, and still hovering close to mid-30s in many parts of the country, the heatwave is pushing not only living things but also various structural systems to their limits. 

These are some of them.

Health

Several days of extremely hot temperatures can cause heat stress, according to the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute.

If the nights are not cool enough, the body can’t recover from the heat of the day, creating a dangerous condition called the “thermal stress”, which can be fatal for the elderly and other vulnerable people.

While there are no statistics showing how many people have fallen victim to heat stress during the most recent heatwave, a number of cantons have put into place a system of home visits and frequent phone contacts with this at-risk group.

READ MORE: How to keep your cool during Switzerland’s heatwave

Drought

Intense heat and lack of rain means that water levels in some of Switzerland’s lakes and rivers — including Lakes Lucerne, Walenstadt, Constance, Lugano and Maggiore — are below average values for the season.

Cantons of Aargau, Lucerne, Fribourg, Basel-City, Solothurn, and Graubünden are also concerned about lower-than-normal levels in their waterways.

In fact, at least one lake, the Lac des Brenets in western Switzerland, is now dry, with just a small trickle of water left.

An aerial view shows the dry bed of Brenets Lake on July 18, 2022. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Continued drought has also repercussions on agriculture, with many crops expected to be literally burned by heat and lack of water.

Energy supply

Here too, water plays a role — not so much its level as its temperature.

The river Aare, which powers and cools the Beznau nuclear plant in Aargau, had to reduce its power recently as the river’s temperature is too warm.

The maximum power is currently reduced by up to 50 percent.

The situation is not extremely worrying yet, but Antonio Sommavilla, spokesperson for Axpo, Switzerland’s largest producer of renewable energy, indicated that a further power reduction at Beznau, or even the total shutdown of the plant, was possible due to the persistent heat. In such a case, Axpo would have to buy electricity on the international markets, he said.

Rails

The tracks on which the trains and trams run are impacted by high temperatures as well.

“Persistent temperatures of over 30 degrees can lead to what is known as track warping”, according to report in Swiss tabloid Blick.

“Railway tracks expand, deform and become a safety hazard”.

The newspaper added that latest security checks carried out on the tracks have “discovered anomalies”.

Warped or otherwise deformed rails cause delays because “in order to ensure operational safety and driving comfort, the speed has been reduced at the affected places,” said Sonja Körkel, spokesperson for the Basel Public Transport (BVB).

It is too early to say whether the heatwave will inflict permanent or serious damage on the transport infrastructure, but some regional carriers have come up with creative solutions to …cover their tracks.

For instance, the Rhaetian Railway’s operators have painted the rails white “on certain parts of our network”, so that tracks don’t heat up as much  and expand less, said company spokesperson Yvonne Dünser.

Other transport providers have taken preventive measures by adding gravel to stabilise the railway tracks, so they have less leeway to deform, according to the report.

Tracks get deformed in heat. Photo: eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Glaciers

It is a known fact that glaciers are already melting faster than usually due to global warming, but the most recent heatwave is speeding up this process.

As The Local reported on Monday, receding glaciers, which are now shrinking at a faster rate than before, are re-defining borders between Switzerland and Italy.

For instance, melting snow on and around the famed Matterhorn, which straddles both countries, is literally moving the borders, and this drift has logistical and practical implications, according to Alain Wicht, who is in charge of national border layouts at the Federal Office of Topography (Swisstopo).

They include matters such as determining the administrative duties and jurisdiction for infrastructure construction and maintenance of the newly created territories.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

Cars

Sitting in an overheated vehicle is not only unbearable for people and animals, but the cars “suffer” also.

That’s because batteries, electronic components, and engine parts break down more often in very hot weather, according to Daniel Graf, spokesperson for Touring Club Suisse (TCS) motoring organisation.

“In the engine compartment, the temperature reaches 60 degrees and more in summer. This causes chemical processes in the battery, damaging it until it gives up the ghost”, he said.

Driving: How serious is the Swiss government’s nationwide 60km/h plan?

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CLIMATE CRISIS

‘By a substantial margin’: How summer 2022 was Europe’s hottest on record

The summer of 2022 was the hottest in Europe's recorded history, with the continent suffering blistering heatwaves and the worst drought in centuries, the European Commission's satellite monitor said on Thursday.

'By a substantial margin': How summer 2022 was Europe's hottest on record

The five hottest years on record have all come since 2016 as climate change drives ever longer and stronger hot spells and drier soil conditions.

And that created tinderbox forests, increasing the risk of devastating and sometimes deadly wildfires.

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said temperatures in Europe had been the “highest on record for both the month of August and the summer (June-August) as a whole”.

Data showed August was the hottest on the continent since records began in 1979 by a “substantial margin”, beating the previous record set in August 2021 by 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.72 Fahrenheit). Temperatures from June through to August 2022 were 1.34C hotter than the historical 1991-2020 average, while August itself was 1.72C higher than average.

READ ALSO: ‘A code red’: Will Europeans change their habits after climate crisis reality check?

An aerial view taken on August 4, 2022 in Les Brenets shows the dry bed of Brenets Lake (Lac des Brenets), part of the Doubs River, a natural border between eastern France and western Switzerland, as much of Europe bakes in a third heatwave since June. – The river has dried up due to a combination of factors, including geological faults that drain the river, decreased rainfall and heatwaves. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

That puts summer in Europe well within the temperature range at which the Paris Agreement on climate change seeks to limit global heating.

The 2015 accord commits nations to cap average global temperatures at “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels and to strive for a safer guardrail of 1.5C.

Although satellite data only stretches back a few decades, a Copernicus spokeswoman told AFP the service was confident that 2022 was the hottest summer in Europe going as far back as 1880 — at the early stage of the industrial age.

Europe has been battered by a string of heatwaves this year, with temperature records tumbling in many countries and the mercury topping 40C for the first time in Britain.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said last month that 2022 was already a record year for wildfires, with nearly 660,000 hectares torched in Europe since January.

‘Summer of extremes’

CAMS said fires in France had seen the highest levels of carbon pollution from wildfires since records began in 2003.

The EU said last month that the current drought parching the continent was the worst in at least 500 years.

The European Commission’s Global Drought Observatory latest bulletin said 47 percent of the continent is currently covered by drought warnings — meaning the soil is drying out.

An additional 17 percent is under drought alert, meaning that vegetation is showing signs of stress, fuelling concerns about the continent’s autumn harvest.

“An intense series of heatwaves across Europe, paired with unusually dry conditions, have led to a summer of extremes with records in terms of temperature, drought and fire activity in many parts of Europe, affecting society and nature in various ways,” said senior C3S scientist Freja Vamborg.

“Data shows that we’ve not only had record August temperatures for Europe but also for summer, with the previous summer record only being one year old.”

On a global level, August 2022 was the joint warmest August on record. The average temperature was 0.3C higher than the 1991-2020 average for the month, the monitor said.

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