Europe’s Scorching Summer

Was Global Warming Responsible for the Deadly Heat?

By the end of Europe’s staggering summer heat wave, Budapest’s ornate bridges were looking strange. They stood high above the water, their supporting foundations exposed, looking as if they were all standing on tiptoes. Rarely seen boulders jutted out from the brown surface of the Danube and grasses and tree saplings sprouted up in the dried mud at the foot of the city’s stone river banks.

The Danube, Europe’s most magnificent waterway, was withering away. At summer’s end, water levels in some parts of the 1,800-mile long river fell to the lowest levels in over a century, stranding hundreds of ships and barges from southern Germany to the Romanian lowlands. Romania’s Cernavoda Nulcear Power Plant, which draws coolant from the river, was forced to shut down for nearly a month, and for several days in early September, illegal immigrants were spotted wading from Bulgaria to Romania across the shrunken Danube.

"Never in my life have I seen the river this low," says Danail Nedialkov, a retired Bulgarian riverboat captain who is now general director of the Danube Commission, the Budapest-based body responsible for managing navigation on the international waterway. "If you had told me in the spring that this is what would happen I would not have believed you. It was totally unexpected."

Last summer, the Danube River fell to its lowest level in a century, allowing bathers to wade across.©EPA/DPA/ARMIN WEIGEL

The low river levels were the product of a prolonged drought in much of Central and Southeastern Europe, combined with a blistering summer heat wave blamed for more than 19,000 deaths across Europe. London experienced its hottest day in history on August 6, a day when desperate tourists mobbed Trafalgar Square’s fountains in a bid to stay cool. Nearly 15,000 died in France during the heat wave, the worst ever recorded in the country, with temperatures reaching 104. The heat buckled roads in Germany and forced Portugal to suspend rail traffic.

On the Danube, water levels exposed previously unseen World War II-era bombs in Budapest, tanks in Croatia, and sunken German ships. In Novi Sad, where NATO planes destroyed bridges in 1999, river traffic was blocked for three weeks because water levels had fallen so low that Serbian authorities were no longer able to open a temporary pontoon bridge. Further up the river, even the Budapest to Vienna hydrofoil service had to switch to smaller vessels, for fear of grounding out in the shallows.

"Here in Budapest the river has not been this low since 1947," says Janos Litvai, managing director of inland shipping at Mahart, the Hungarian shipping company, which as late as mid-September had 15 ships stranded by low water and was expecting losses to exceed $1 million as a result. "The situation is extreme."

Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake and an extremely popular recreation area 90 miles southwest of Budapest, shrank dramatically. On the lake’s shallow southern shore—home to the most popular resorts—the water retreated from shore by 150 to 300 feet, forcing bathers to trudge through the mud before every swim. Residents say the lake has been noticeably shrinking for the past four years.

Europe’s staggering heat and disappearing surface waters fueled speculation that global warming might be responsible. Scientists have long predicted that global warming will prompt more frequent and severe freak weather events such as tornadoes, extreme storms and dire droughts, but can’t prove any particular event is "caused" by the increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Others think the circumstantial evidence is compelling. "The situation in the Danube is very much connected to climate change," says Janos Zlinszky of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe in Szentendre, Hungary, who owns a summer cottage on the now-dry shores of Lake Balaton.

"It’s not just that the water is so low this year, its that we’ve been experiencing low water situations with increasing frequency," he says, adding that much of the Danube’s troubles are due to reduced snowfall and higher average temperatures in the Alps, whose streams feed many of the Danube’s tributaries. "The glaciers are shrinking more and more every year and there is much less snowpack to feed the rivers."

At the Danube Commission, Nedialkov agrees that reduced rainfall and Alpine snows have triggered the crisis, but he says there’s no way to know if it is linked to global warming. "Our hope is that it rains," he says, lifting his outstretched hands towards the ceiling of his 19th century Budapest office. "And that is always in God’s hands."