Sicily heatwave: What it’s like to live in the hottest European temperature ever recorded

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Yesterday, Sicily experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded in Europe: 48.8C.

This was recorded in Syracuse, a coastal city an hour away from where I live. Inland, temperatures were even hotter. Friends in Catania, Sicily’s second-biggest city, have been posting photos of temperature gauges showing 51C.

Since mid-June, when the heatwave began here, local news has been warning that temperatures could hit 45C. So we’ve been bracing ourselves and living through daily power cuts, some lasting 12 hours.

But nothing can really prepare you for how this kind of heat impacts your life and routine.

The only way to survive it is by staying indoors with the blinds down all day or, better still, at the beach where there’s a breeze. But yesterday, sod’s law, I had to run errands.

The dashboard showed 35C at 9am, so I knew we were in for a very hot day. As an environmental journalist and activist, I usually opt for windows down over air conditioning.

(“Then why do you drive?” I hear you say. Public transport outside of Sicily’s main cities is non-existent. That’s another, related story.)

Yesterday, however, the breeze was so hot that I had to resort to AC.

You know when you step off a plane and the air and heat from the runway hit you like a wall? It was like being engulfed in that. When I wasn’t in the car or inside a building, I felt short of breath; it was like my lungs couldn’t take in the air they needed.

Before I lived here, I judged Italy for shutting down for the whole of August. I thought Italians were work-shy and just used the heat as an excuse. Now I envy them.

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I can’t take August off as I work for an international organisation, but there have been many days when all I’ve wanted to do is lie in a cold, dark room and rest. Even after a good night’s sleep, workout and healthy breakfast, the routines I can usually rely on for energy, I’m drained by 2pm.

I usually work at a standing desk to relieve chronic back pain. But in early July my feet had started swelling up by 11am. During winter and spring, I could stand for five or six hours a day with no problem.

I switched to working at a desk next to a fan, but even with this in place, it’s incredibly hard to focus by mid-afternoon. It feels like I’m an overheated laptop and only shutting down will get me working again. As I need to keep working, I resort to lying on the bed with my laptop, as my bedroom is the only room in the house with air conditioning. And that gives me back pain.

You’re in a constant state of trade-offs: Overheat or back pain? Blast the air-con and feel terrible about the emissions, or only use a fan and be less focused at work? These feel like gargantuan decisions when you’re already so irritated by the heat.

Despite all this, I am grateful to be experiencing these temperatures. It fuels my writing and activism, especially on days when my physical energy is low.

I have never felt more empathetic towards the millions who’ve been living on the frontline of the climate crisis for years already. It’s brought our neighbours together, as we all pile out onto the street after another power cut. And of course, weekends at the beach are lovely, if crowded.

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But I can afford to be grateful. Along with the privileges of air-con, electricity (most of the time) and a home. I am young, white, healthy; I only have to work one job. I don’t have any children to look after, I live on the coast. I could go on but I’m sure you get the point.

Like COVID-19, when these temperatures hit the rest of Europe, which they will in the next 3-5 years, they will hit the most vulnerable first. Then they’ll come for the rest of us.

This week’s IPCC report showed that the last five years have been the hottest on record since 1850 and heatwaves are happening more often, and they’re hotter.

We have all made so many sacrifices to try and end the pandemic. Why can’t we do the same to stem climate change?

This will mean some personal sacrifices, like flying less and cutting down on meat. But mainly, change needs to come from the top. It starts with governments sacrificing economic growth, by not letting polluting industries keep extracting fossil fuels, in favour of their countries’ futures.

To get us out of this mess, at the necessary speed, we need political and industrial change now.

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