It’s either a famine or a feast. We spent the winter and most of the spring grumbling about all the rain; now we’re taking refuge from the heat. Much of the northern hemisphere is experiencing unprecedented levels of heatwave: notably the UK and Sweden, where forest fires have raged out of control. The technical explanation is that the jet stream has risen too far northwards – having come too far southwards over the winter and got stuck. This is drawing up hot air from the Sahara. Here in France, la canicule has arrived and looks set to continue for the next week at least.
Météo France says that this July is the third hottest on record since 1900. And despite all that rain, our département, Tarn-et-Garonne, is on orange alert – the second highest level – for drought. Because of thunderstorms, we’ve even had slightly more than the average rainfall. The Lot département, just north of us, is on red alert, requiring severe restrictions on water usage.
Even so, it’s not as hot as in 2003, when we had three months of non-stop heatwave from June to the end of August, and temperatures topping 40 degrees C at times. Our lawn turned brown and then dusty. You can see how deserts begin.
Origins of the term
How is la canicule defined and what are the origins of this rather strange term? To be worthy of the name, the weather must be consistently hot for at least 72 hours. The threshold temperatures vary by region of France: in Lille, for example, the values are at least 33 degrees C by day, not dropping below 18C by night; in Toulouse, it’s 36C by day and 21C by night.
The origins of the term are more complicated and date back several millennia. Canicule comes from the Latin canicula, little dog. The Egyptians associated the Dog Star, Sirius, or Canicula, with excessive heat, since it rose and set with the sun between 24th July and 24th August. It was believed to have a strong influence in regulating the levels of the Nile. Canicule is therefore used to designate periods of significant increases in temperature. Hence also the term in English “the dog days of summer”. To mitigate the effects of the heat on the harvests, the Romans apparently sacrificed red dogs.
This is the French government’s advice in case of canicule, especially for vulnerable people:
- Drink plenty of water without waiting to feel thirsty.
- Cool your face and forearms (as a minimum) with water several times a day.
- Eat reasonable quantities and don’t drink alcohol (huh!).
- Don’t go out at the hottest times of day and spend several hours a day in a cool place.
- Avoid physical effort.
- Keep your house cool by closing shutters and doors during the hottest times and opening them at night and in the early morning when it’s cooler.
- Keep people informed of how you are if you live alone – and keep an eye on vulnerable neighbours.
- Keep yourself regularly informed of the weather forecast.
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