- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

PARIS — Sometimes nature has a sick sense of humor.

Last August, large swaths of Europe lay under water after weeks of torrential rain caused the Danube and other rivers to burst their banks. This summer, an arc of drought-parched countries stretching from Russia to Portugal is suffering the greatest heat wave in more than a quarter century.

Across the continent, meteorologists have dusted off their record books to see when Europe last experienced such a scorching summer.

France recorded its highest temperatures since 1945 on Monday, as the mercury rose to more than 100 degrees in many southern parts of the country. Austria experienced its hottest June since 1811. Hungary and Croatia have not witnessed such extreme heat in more than half a century, while record temperatures in Germany have claimed five lives.

Even famously cool and drizzly London got hot under the collar yesterday as the thermometer recorded an unprecedented 99 degrees and engineers slowed trains for fear of buckled tracks.

The heat wave, entering its fourth month in many countries, has produced the kinds of surreal images normally associated with the films of Federico Fellini or Emir Kusturica.

In eastern Serbia, the masts of German warships sunk during World War II emerged above the surface of the Danube last week after the river sank to its lowest level since the end of the 19th century.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, firefighters were forced to put down their hoses after forest fires unearthed land mines left during a civil war that ended almost a decade ago.

In Western European zoos, keepers have covered pigs in sunscreen, fed iced mackerel to bears and put tigers on a diet of horse-blood-flavored ice cream.

The sizzling heat has been good news for ice merchants, soft-drink vendors and hoteliers in northern European beach resorts, but it has left a trail of destruction.

In Spain, where 13 persons have died since the heat wave started, more than 30,000 acres of woodland were destroyed by fire over the weekend. In Portugal, Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso declared a state of emergency after 11 persons died in some 60 forest blazes across the country. In Croatia, France and Poland, fires have raged through tens of thousands of acres of forest.

German farmers estimate that cereal production will be 10 percent to 15 percent lower than last year, with losses running to almost $1 billion. Wheat production in Serbia is at its lowest level in 50 years, and Romania has been forced to import 1 million tons of grain to make up for this year’s dismal harvest.

The French government has loosened requirements for making Roquefort cheese, allowing farmers to feed their goats with food scraps, for example, but only during periods where their animals are not producing milk.

City dwellers have not escaped the effects of the heat wave. Dangerously high ozone levels have been recorded in French, Austrian and Belgian cities, leading authorities to urge commuters to leave their cars at home. Water rationing has been imposed in more than half of France’s 95 departments, with fines of up to $1,700 for transgressors.

The only respite for urban folk is the proliferation of city beaches this summer. After the spectacular success of “Paris Plage” last year, Brussels and Berlin followed suit, dumping thousands of tons of sand along palm-fringed rivers and canals for those not fortunate enough to be by the sea.

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