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Record Breaking Heat Wave Scorches Europe - 2003-08-05

Recordbreaking temperatures and drought have hit vast areas of Europe in recent weeks, causing transportation and power problems, decimating agricultural production and sparking massive forest fires.

The weather tops the news in France these days. Temperatures sizzled at 35 or more degrees across the country Tuesday, and more hot weather is forecast for at least the next several days. More than half of France's 95 departments, or regions, are rationing water. The country's nuclear power plants also may start cutting electricity production for lack of cooling water.

France hasn't seen such high temperatures since 1949 and so little rain in 25 years.

The hot, dry weather is searing a path of devastation across much of southern and eastern Europe. Temperatures have soared above 40 degrees in parts of Spain and Germany, and fires continue to blaze across swathes of Portuguese forests.

Serbia is witnessing its most serious drought in a century, and Croatia its biggest dry spell in 50 years. Other countries like Romania and the Czech Republic predict agricultural production will plummet this summer for lack of rain.

Switzerland's hottest summer in 250 years helped melt the permafrost on the Matterhorn mountain last month, sparking avalanches and rock falls.

The weather has sparked power and water shortages in parts of the continent and crippled shipping and train transport, causing millions of dollars in losses.

And hard-hit European farmers like Pierre Reveillac, have only begun to assess the devastation.

Mr. Reveillac raises goats in central France. He said he has already lost 90 percent of his summer fodder crop. If there's no rain in the next two weeks, he said, he won't be able to plant a fall crop either - forcing him to buy hundreds of kilos of grain to feed his animals. Mr. Reveillac, who is 48, said, he has never seen a drought like this one.

In southwestern France, one of the regions most affected by the drought, farmer Jean-Pierre Verleaguet says growers have also given up on their summer harvest.

Like Mr. Reveillac, Mr. Verleaguet raises goats - some for meat, but others to produce France's famous Roquefort cheese. Because of the drought, he says, the country's normally tight Roquefort production restrictions have been eased somewhat. But, he vows, the taste will be the same.

The weather is also endangering France's most precious commodity - wine, as grapes wither on the vine from searing heat.

Elsewhere in Europe, parts of Germany have lost up to 80 percent of their grain production.

Whether Europe's heat and drought wave is due to global warming is a matter of debate. French Environment Minister Roselyne Bachelot says the drought could be a sign of profound climatic change caused by global warming.

If that's the case, Greenpeace spokesman Michel Luze has a dire prediction.

He said, Europeans and others may well have to start getting used to more extreme climatic conditions, like this one, in the years to come.