HELSINKI, June 16 (AP) — Summer is wildfire season in southern Europe, but the northern part of the continent is also at risk this year, with wildfire warnings issued in northern Europe and the Baltic states.
Lack of rainfall and rising temperatures have left the region dangerously dry, leading to fears of a repeat of the summer of 2018, when fires ravaged Sweden.
Small wildfires are already raging in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, and experts fear the situation could get worse unless heavy rains arrive in the coming weeks.
Unlike the sun-drenched Mediterranean countries that deal with wildfires every summer, the phenomenon is rare in the Nordic countries, where summers are typically cool and wet by comparison.
“These countries are relatively new to drought,” said Niclas Hjerdt, head of hydrological forecasting at SMHI, Sweden’s meteorological agency.
“In Northern Europe and Scandinavia, we generally have too much water here. So, in countries further south in Europe, there is no historical knowledge of how to deal with drought conditions.”
Southern Sweden has received very little rainfall in May and June has not seen a drop of rain so far, resulting in unusually dry soils, SMHI said. The agency said the risk of wildfires is now “very high” in southern parts of the country, including the Stockholm region, and while rain is forecast for this weekend, it is unlikely to have a significant impact, Hjerdt said.
In neighboring Finland, the Finnish Meteorological Institute warned this week that there was a “high risk” of forest fires in much of the country due to dry terrain and a “very high risk” in southwestern Finland and the Åland islands in the Baltic Sea.
Sweden and Finland are mostly forested.
Similar warnings have been issued by Norway, Denmark and the Baltic states. Campfires are banned in most of the region.
Experts say the drought may be linked to the transition from La Niña to El Niño in the Pacific Ocean, which changes weather patterns around the world and often leads to dry summers in northern Europe.
Hjerdt said it was too early to conclude any link to climate change, but added that overall, warming has made the Nordic region more vulnerable to forest fires because it makes summers longer, Winters are shortened, extending the “plant growing” season in which most precipitation evaporates or evaporates instead of sinking deeper into the ground.
Sweden, Denmark and Norway have reported only small forest fires so far, but authorities have warned conditions could escalate unless heavy rains arrive in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, temperatures are heating up in the region, with temperatures expected to hit 30C (86F) in Finland in the coming days – a rarity for a country straddling the Arctic Circle.
“The heat wave could also stay on the surface next week and spread all the way to Lapland,” said Tuomo Bergman, a meteorologist at the Finland Institute, referring to the northernmost region of Finland.
Heavy rain in Finland won’t come until around midsummer on June 24, when traditional bonfires will be banned, he said.
“The drought of the past few weeks has had a major impact on our agriculture and given the prospect of no rain in the summer, we must have a clear plan to help farm in the best possible way,” said Danish Agriculture Minister Jacob Jensen.
The Swedish Farmers’ Federation said the drought had affected grassland crops and could have an impact on cereals.
“If there is no rain in the near future, future harvests will be affected,” the industry group said in a statement. It noted that due to the hot and dry summer of 2018, the industry lost almost the entire grain harvest, costing around SEK 10 billion ($1.2 billion).
Globally, May was the second warmest month on record, with temperatures in Canada and the northern United States being particularly warm, according to the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.
Fires are raging in Canada, sending dangerous haze deep into the United States.
In Europe, southern Scandinavia, the Baltic states and western Russia had a drier-than-average May, Copernicus said. With the exception of the Iberian Peninsula, which also experienced drought, much of southern Europe was wetter than average.
This spring in Spain was the hottest on record for the country and the second-driest. That set the stage for the wildfires that erupted earlier this year and the need to limit water for agriculture, industry and fill private swimming pools in the hardest-hit areas.
In mainland France, water resources are still affected by last summer’s drought, with two-thirds of the country’s water table below normal.
Local forest fires broke out in parts of France, including Lorraine and the Vosges, where extreme heat and forest fires are rare.
In 2018, Sweden experienced the worst forest fires in modern history during an unusually dry and warm summer. Wildfires also affected Denmark, Finland and Norway.
“We are in a very serious situation, similar to the situation before summer 2018,” Swedish Civil Defense Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin said on Thursday, adding that aerial firefighting units were on standby. (Associated Press)
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