Warnings sounded as Med melts in heat

ATHENS - Greece is now on a war footing against weather phenomena "the likes of which we have never seen", warns the country's Public Order Minister Byron Polydoras.

Polydoras was speaking as countries around the Mediterranean roasted, with temperatures soaring to "furnace levels", as one meteorologist described it.

Temperatures are likely to reach 43C in the shade this week, making this the hottest summer on record for Greece in the past century.

Macedonia has declared a state of emergency. Spain, Italy and France are experiencing droughts that are measuring up to become the worst on record.

According to the most recent bulletin from the French Government, the situation remains "preoccupying", with recent rain in the north failing to replenish subterranean reservoirs.

Many politicians now fear the Mediterranean coast may soon become too hot to sustain a viable tourist industry.

"The Mediterranean climate of this country no longer exists. It is changing, perhaps even faster than we expected," said Michalis Petrakis, director of Greece's Institute of Environmental Research at the National Observatory in Athens.

Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Cyprus have all endured searing temperatures over the past few weeks as a region of high pressure extended east from the Azores, blocking weather fronts that normally keep the eastern Mediterranean fairly cool at this time of year.

Forest fires have been raging across the region - Greece's fire service reported 115 fires in one 24-hour period last week.

Last week a five-day blaze on Mount Parnitha destroyed vast tracts of trees, along with hundreds of plants endemic to the region. Unique species of deer, turtles, snakes and hares were killed.

Greek television has carried nightly footage of firefighters battling fires from Thessaloniki in the north to Crete in the south. Tourists had to flee the flames, not least on the Aegean island of Kos, where hoteliers asked guests to pack up and leave even in zones deemed to be safe. As was the case in Athens, many fires came within yards of apartments.

The tourism industry is deeply worried. The Mediterranean's worsening pollution and shifting weather patterns may start to drive away tourists - 15 million people visit Greece each year.

In France, weeks of searing weather have brought climate change back on to the agenda. This year's report from the Government's climate change experts predicted temperatures rising between two and four degrees before the end of the century.

According to Meteo-France, the national meteorologists, winters may be five degrees warmer with summers three degrees hotter.

"The projections lead us to believe that global warming will affect the Mediterranean more than the rest of the planet," said Laurent Li, of the national Centre for Scientific Research. "The Mediterranean is a transition zone between a mild, wet climate to the north and a dry, hot climate in the south. The steep difference makes the Med particularly sensitive and vulnerable to changes."

In one soon-to-be-released study, researchers project rainfall at only two thirds of its 1961 level by the end of this century. "Less precipitation, more evaporation: the two phenomena together will lead to the drying out of the zone around the Mediterranean," said Jean Jouzel, director of a French research centre and author of Climate: Dangerous Games.

Less rainfall means less flow in the rivers and a saltier sea, say experts. At the same time demand for water is rising steeply. Olive and citrus trees have given way to thirsty crops such as sugar cane, strawberries and maize. There are also 276 golf courses on the Spanish coast alone, with 200 more planned. Last week Italian specialists announced the River Po was drying up.

"Greece's weather is becoming tropical, and if tourists want that they might as well go to South-East Asia,' Nikos Economou, the commercial manager of GATS, a Mediterranean tour operator, said. "I think there is a strong possibility we will see a change in booking patterns as tourism adapts to the new climate."

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