Heat Wave Scorches Sweden as Wildfires Rage in the Arctic Circle
Posted July 21, 2018 5:02 p.m. EDT
STOCKHOLM — As Europe grapples with near-record temperatures and sustained drought, Sweden has become the latest nation to confront a wave of wildfires as far north as the Arctic Circle, prompting authorities to evacuate some villages and to appeal for help from neighboring Norway and distant Italy.
There were no immediate reports of any deaths or injuries, but the intensity of the fires and the extreme weather conditions earlier in the year have prompted anguished debate among some Swedes who have described the conflagrations in apocalyptic terms and linked them to global warming.
“It’s very, very dry in most of Sweden,” Jonas Olsson, a hydrologist at the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, said Thursday. “The flows in the rivers and lakes are exceptionally low, except in the very northern part of the country. We have water shortages.”
Rainfall was only around a seventh of the normal amount — the lowest since record-keeping began in the late 19th century, he said.
“It has been a very strange year,” Olsson added, referring to the swing from thick snow in winter, to a sudden warming in May to “very big” spring floods. “Surely, it’s an unusual situation. It is in line with what we would expect from a global warming perspective that we would see these extremes.”
Last year, parts of Europe sweltered under a heat wave that residents in France, Italy and Spain called “Lucifer.” Deadly fires swept Portugal and Spain. But unusually this year, fires have consumed forests and moorland in huge swaths of land in parts of Europe that are much less accustomed to them.
Radio Sweden said on Friday that more than 50 fires were burning across the country, including in central counties and in Swedish Lapland, inside the Arctic Circle, threatening forests near the tourist center of Jokkmokk.
“I want to be very clear about this,” Dan Eliasson, director general of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, said Friday, Radio Sweden reported. “I want to warn about underestimating the severity of the situation. Even if the weather changes, and rain comes, this can continue to escalate. “
Temperatures in the Arctic Circle generally plummet far below zero in winter but soar in summer. The fires outside Jokkmokk are the most severe in more than a decade, according to the local fire service.
The Swedish armed forces and the Home Guard have been called in to help, Dagens Nyheter reported, because the emergency services do not have enough personnel or resources to fight the blazes.
The Swedish news agency TT said the fires had devoured woodlands valued at almost $70 million.
Anders Edberg, 46, a cattle farmer from a region in central Sweden threatened by several fires, said, “I have not seen anything like it.”
“During the morning it was quite quiet,” he said. “Then it started to blow in the afternoon. Then it burned on the treetops and then the smoke starts to burn — the smoke ignites so it is burning up in the sky.”
“It looked like the northern lights,” he added.
Some residential areas, Edberg said, had been evacuated. “It makes you feel small. Nature is powerful and strong. Fire is powerful,” he said.
Palle Borgstrom, a dairy farmer who lives north of Gothenburg, said dry weather since early May and higher temperatures since then had stunted the growth of silage to feed cattle for the winter, meaning that some farmers would have to slaughter more livestock than usual.
“It will take many years to recover from this season,” said Borgstrom, who is also president of the Federation of Swedish Farmers.
In the city of Uppsala, north of Stockholm, temperatures reached 33 degrees Celsius, or about 91 degrees Fahrenheit, news reports said.
In Dalarna County, 100 firefighters and military personnel were battling two blazes with the help of helicopters, said Johan Szymanski, a rescue leader with a local fire brigade there. One blaze near Salen, in the middle of the county, covered more than 1,200 acres. A second fire in the north is about 4 miles long and 3.7 miles wide.
That blaze was in a military zone where artillery is tested, which presented added challenges.
“There’s a lot of ammunition in the terrain that can explode in the fire, but we can’t access it,” Szymanski said. “We have to be 800 meters away from the dangerous areas. So it’s very hard to get into the area to put out the fire.”
“Right now, we are holding three of four firewalls,” he added. “But it is growing a bit every day.”
Italy has sent two planes to Sweden to dump water on the blazes, which firefighters said could spread. Norway — which itself was hit by wildfires last week, some of them caused by lightning strikes — has supplied six helicopters to support the effort. In Jamtland county in northern Sweden, 100 firefighters are working around the clock to battle eight blazes, said Lars Nyman, the fire chief. “The situation is very hard pressed.”
One fire had consumed about 12,355 acres of forest and other terrain, Nyman said. “It started on Thursday with lightning storms,” he explained, and officers “had to evacuate a number of villages in our county.”
“We are in the midst of a heat wave. The temperature is around 30 degrees, and that is very unusual up here,” he added. “We need several days of rain to dampen the earth now. It won’t be enough with a light shower.”
The fires bedeviling parts of Europe have also erupted in northwest England, near Manchester, a city generally more associated with rain.
Dawn Docx, acting fire chief in Manchester, said Wednesday that rains had dampened a huge fire on Saddleworth Moor, just outside the city. It had broken out three weeks ago and was believed to be arson.
But, she added in a statement, “the hot weather is here to stay for the foreseeable future, which means we are still at risk of more wildfires over the summer holidays.”
The Met Office, Britain’s weather service, published satellite photographs Wednesday showing a transformation of the national landscape over the past few months from what poet William Blake in the 19th century called a “green and pleasant land” to a grimy brownish shadow.
“You can’t help but have noticed the lack of rain in many areas over the last 10-12 weeks,” the organization said on Twitter. “It’s even changed the way the UK looks from space!”
Some researchers have found a figurative silver lining to the marked absence of cloud that has accompanied temperatures soaring routinely above 86 degrees Fahrenheit. In Scotland and Ireland, aerial surveys of desiccated croplands in recent days have revealed evidence of ancient structures dating to beyond Roman times.
“We depend on dry years to bring out the buried remains in the crops, so we are currently out hunting for new clues from the skies while the good weather lasts,” said Dave Cowley of Historic Environment Scotland, an official conservation organization.
“The conditions this year are showing us many sites that we knew were there, but may not have seen in recent damp summers, as well as revealing new archaeological sites that add to our ability to see into the past to tell Scotland’s story,” Cowley added.
The latest findings include Iron Age structures and evidence of a Roman camp near the border with England.
Those discoveries came as Anthony Murphy, an author and photographer in Ireland, said he had discovered a previously unknown, 5,000-year-old henge, or gathering place, in the Bru na Boinne archaeological landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 30 miles north of Dublin.