'Life at 40°C is a nightmare': Greece faces longest and most intense heat wave in its history

In Athens, temperatures have exceeded 40°C for the last few days, and the worst is yet to come this weekend.

Le Monde in English, By Marina Rafenberg Published on July 22, 2023

A tourist uses a handfan inside Stoa of Attalos, at ancient Agora, in Athens, on Thursday, July 20, 2023. PETROS GIANNAKOURIS / AP

In the early hours of Friday, July 21, with the mercury already at 30°C, Anna was walking her dog in the Japanese garden in the Pangrati district of Athens. "He's dragging his feet, he's exhausted. And so am I! I don't sleep well, the air conditioning gives me a sore throat, and during the day if I walk for a few minutes in the sun, I get dizzy," sighed the civil servant. Exceptionally today, she will be working from home. "Our daily lives have been turned upside down in recent years by global warming. Summer is getting harder and harder to live in Athens," admitted the thirty-something.

In recent days, the main private-sector trade union (GSEE) has received up to 100 complaints from employees forced to work outdoors between midday and 5 pm, hours prohibited by the government. As a result, on Friday the Labor Ministry once again called on all companies and administrations to give priority to telecommuting in view of the high temperatures, which reached up to 41°C on Friday in Attica, the region around Athens. The ministry also asked labor inspectors to check that no workers were working on dangerous construction sites in full sunshine over the next few days.

The worst is yet to come this weekend. All the country's archaeological sites, including the Acropolis in Athens, will once again remain closed during the hottest part of the day until Sunday. An action plan has also been put in place by Athens Town Hall. Bottles of water are being distributed near Athens' central square, Syntagma, a number of air-conditioned rooms are being opened, notably for the homeless, agents are also roaming the streets to help the most needy, 150 water points across the city have been set up for stray animals, a special number has been established and even drones are flying over the capital's hills to monitor any outbreaks of fire.

On Sunday, the mercury will approach 44°C in the Greek capital and even 45°C in Thessaly in the center of the country. "This weekend is likely to be the hottest July on record in the last 50 years," warned meteorologist Panagiotis Giannopoulos on public TV channel ERT.

Significant drop in rainfall

In 2007, Athens had already seen red with a temperature of 44.8°C, according to the National Observatory of Athens. "But what's very special this year is the duration of these heat waves," said Kostas Lagouvardos, Research Director at the National Observatory of Athens. "Since July 12, we've been facing very high temperatures approaching 40°C, and a new heat wave is expected again from next Wednesday, after only a two-day respite," he continued.

New Peramos, near Athens, July 19, 2023. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP

According to data from the National Observatory in Athens, since 1987 Greece has experienced an average heat wave lasting around 10 days. "But this year, we're likely to have up to 20 days in a row – that's unheard of!" sighed Lagouvardos. Christos Zerefos, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Athens, explained that this year, "there have been three heat waves in a row." He also noted that "if there were no wind at all, such as the Meltemi that blows in from the Aegean Sea every year from mid-July onwards, it would be 40°C in Athens all the time."

In the next few decades, according to the expert, there could be up to 30 days of heat wave in a row in the Greek capital. "Greece, especially its eastern part, is at risk of becoming a semi-arid zone, i.e. humidity will be less than 10 % and will have very significant consequences for agricultural activities, but will also increase the danger of fire," he continues.

In 2023, according to Christos Zeferos, Director of the Atmospheric Physics and Climatology Research Center at the Academy of Athens, only around half the rainfall normally required to properly irrigate the soils fell in this area of the Mediterranean: "The soils are very dry and as soon as there is wind, fire starts are favored. Hence the major fires of recent days." What still saves Athens from total desertification for the researcher, "is the proximity of the sea and those annual winds like the Meltemi."

'Unbearable' for the elderly and children

Giorgos Kefis closed his food-truck parked outside the Athens War Museum, where he has been taking refuge during the hot hours. "Life at 40°C is a nightmare, but unfortunately it's becoming more and more our daily life in summer!" he observed. One of his customers was worried about his grandmother: "I can't look after her all day, and I'm afraid. For the elderly and children, this situation is unbearable."

Distribution of bottled water by the Red Cross near the entrance to the Acropolis archaeological site, Athens, July 20, 2023. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP

One date remains firmly anchored in the memory of the Athenians: the summer of 1987, when thousands of people died (between 2,000 and 3,000 according to estimates published in the Greek press) as a result of a heat wave. "Nobody wants to relive that episode! Air conditioning is now widespread everywhere, but the city still has to adapt," said Kefis.

Athens is one of Europe's most densely populated capitals, with very little green space. Kefis, who admitted he doesn't have a highly developed ecological conscience, was now anxious: "We are seeing the consequences of climate change in concrete terms, and governments, companies and local authorities need to take action! We want a city that breathes, with trees, parks, watering holes, shady spaces!"


  • Podcast with Editor-in-Chief of the journal “Physiological Reviews”, relative to the review paper that was recently published by C. Zerefos, I. Fountoulakis, K. Eleftheratos, and A. Kazantzidis which refers to the current state of knowledge and the evolution of the ozone layer and the solar ultraviolet radiation at the Earth’s surface, and discusses the expected impact of climate crisis on the future levels of solar ultraviolet radiation.