Fire and water sweep through Europe in summer of extreme weather
VIENNA, Austria – Fire and floods have engulfed Europe this summer, as a drought in Spain and Portugal transformed swaths of woodland into a massive tinderbox and torrential downpours carved a trail of destruction through Alpine valleys and impoverished Balkan villages.Entire sections of the Swiss capital, Bern, have been submerged. Blazes flare up even as old ones are snuffed in Portugal and Spain. And dozens have been killed in a third straight summer of extreme European weather that has people asking: Why?”People wonder, hey, what’s going on with our climate,” said Dale Mohler, the director of international forecasting at AccuWeather.com. “But we’ve seen these kind of heat waves in southwest Europe before.”Both the fire and the floodwaters may be devastating, but they are not all that unprecedented, Mohler argued. Heat waves like the one that has scorched Portugal and Spain – leaving forests looking like barren winter landscapes – have occurred every 15 to 20 years.Floods that have claimed at least 42 lives in central and southern Europe are not that unusual either – even though they have cut off western Alpine valleys in Austria, sent walls of water as high as 12 feet crashing over villages in Romania and forced authorities in Switzerland to pluck residents from their homes and evacuate them by helicopter.Still, though horrific, the latest weather phenomena does not compare to other disasters, such as the record-breaking heat in France in 2003 that killed nearly 15,000 people or last year’s hurricane in Brazil, considered the first such recorded storm in the south Atlantic.”Is the world coming to an end? No – at least not today or tomorrow,” Mohler said.Some suggest the heightened ability of media to beam images of destruction around the world has contributed to a false perception of an increase in natural disasters.Yet other factors may be magnifying events.Development in once-remote regions means that extreme weather that might have gone unnoticed earlier now affects more lives. Environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund also point to global warming.Martin Hiller, a spokesman for the group, said that while it was difficult for anyone to connect one specific disaster to climate change, the increasing number of such events and their intensity suggest global warming could be involved.”We are linking these (extreme weather) events to climate change,” he said. “It is not the only reason. There are also other things happening – building up the land, bad land-use plans, bad fire prevention in the south, for instance in Portugal – but all the factors together are more and more exacerbated by global warming.”And things could get worse, said Salvano Briceno, the head of the U.N.’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. He warned that Europe should expect more severe rains because of global warming and called for efficient early warning systems.”It is incredible that people in a country like Switzerland are dying because of floods. But people forget easily how vulnerable they are. We should always be ready to face natural hazards,” Briceno said.Another problem in Switzerland has been overdevelopment, which has intensified in recent years as more and more people have moved to the suburbs or built second homes in the countryside, Anton Schleiss of Lausanne’s polytechnic school told the Switzerland’s Radio DRS.As a result, there is increasingly less room available for measures that might mitigate the effects of a future natural disaster, such as allowing rivers to flow more naturally and thereby enabling them to better absorb high water levels.The draining of marshlands – mostly for agricultural purposes – results in harder, less porous ground. The straightening of rivers and their often artificial banks to reclaim land for agriculture or construction gives them less capacity to absorb high water levels.More compromise is needed among interested parties – including farmers, homeowners and ecologists – to allow greater protection against overdevelopment, Schleiss said.”You can’t win the race against natural dangers,” he said.—Associated Press Writers David Nauer in Bern, Uta Harnischfeger in Geneva and Joanna Mateus in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this story.
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