We often hear that Portugal has over 300 days of sunshine a year. That may be the case at one or two places in the Algarve, but not for the majority of the Portuguese mainland.
The weather seems to be less predictable and more extreme these days, which overwhelming evidence, according to experts, points to a consequence of climate change.
We started this year having experienced several weeks of heavy rain with extensive flooding in various parts of the country, particularly in Lisbon before Christmas and in Viana do Castelo district over the New Year. The rain was intense in several districts with extensive flooding, landslips, fallen trees and cars being washed away in strong currents.
Red rain warnings were issued by the IPMA (weather institute) during these periods, affecting several districts mainly in the centre and north of the mainland, but also in Portalegre district, in the centre east as well.
The emergency services were placed on an orange level state of internal readiness, which means “dangerous situations with conditions for the occurrence of unusual phenomena that may cause harm to people and property and jeopardise their safety”.
The very heavy rains have had at least one benefit and that is the drought situation has improved in almost all areas of the mainland.
At the end of December 2021, 50.4% of the territory was in a situation of light rain, 49.1% normal and 0.5% in moderate rain, but during January this quickly changed, and by the end of January 2022, almost the entire mainland was in drought. As at the end of 2022, only 6.5% of the mainland is in drought.
At the end of December 2022, 26 reservoirs have water availability greater than 80% of the volume total and nine have availability below 40% of the total volume. Compare this with December 2021, when only seven had water availability greater than 80% of the volume total and 13 had availability of less than 40% of the total volume. The rains of December 2022 made a considerable difference.
January 1, 2023 was notable in that it was the warmest January day on record for many countries in Europe. In Poland 19ºC, Denmark 12.6ºC, Czech Republic 19.6ºC, Netherlands 16.9ºC and here in Portugal 15ºC in the Alentejo.
Three weeks later, we are experiencing a cold air mass with temperatures down to minus -6.2ºC in Bragança. Interestingly, on the same day in 2022, IPMA recorded temperature of minus -6ºC to 3ºC in the north. January was, in fact, a cold month, but, by mid-February, maximum air temperatures reached 26.3ºC in Zambujeira and with relative humidity levels as low as 17%.
In the first five weeks of 2022, there were over 1,000 rural fires in Portugal, of which more than 450 occurred from January 28 to 30. Over 85% of these fires during that period were in the far north (where most of the rain has recently fallen), as a consequence of debris or land burning which was not authorised or was approved but was not properly controlled.
On January 28, 2022, two fires broke out in hard-to-reach mountain areas and one broke out in a forested area near a village. There were no populations or homes in danger.
In January 2022, there were very low levels of relative humidity which, associated with the east winds and the absence of what is called “the nocturnal recovery” of humidity when the sun goes down, this led to an increased fire hazard when there is a fire.
In fact, at the time of the above fires, the relative humidity levels were as low as 11% in the afternoon in this general area, a similar level one would experience in summer – compare this to the start of 2023 when RH levels of between 95–100% were the norm in the north.
Fires in the winter are not very common, but it’s not unheard of either. Having fires in the winter months has to do with weather and climate conditions and there have been previous years when this has also occurred.
Portugal is one of the European countries most affected in the last 40 years by extreme weather events in terms of premature deaths and economic losses, according to a recent report by the European Environment Agency.
These extreme events include meteorological occurrences such as storms, hydrological events such as floods, or climatological events such as heatwaves, cold waves and droughts, and in Portugal they also have a significant impact.
As can be seen in a matter of just two months (December 2022 and January 2023), we have experienced heavy rains, above-average temperatures, followed by cold weather.
Being aware and prepared
Extreme weather events are becoming more common, and we have to be prepared.
Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and the work of governments working with communities is becoming more important in risk awareness and being prepared. We cannot control major events such as heavy rain leading to floods or an earthquake leading to a tsunami, but we can make a difference in determining the level of impact.
In Portugal, the government launched, 10 years ago, the Resilient Cities Network, which involves 40 municipalities including all those in the Algarve, with the region being designated as a ‘hub’.
Safe Communities Portugal has been involved in this by making a presentation at the 7th National Resilient Cities Network meeting in Odemira in January and as a signatory of the Regional Platform for the Reduction of Risk of Catastrophes in the Algarve (PRRRC do Algarve).
SCP’s role as part of DRR is to help encourage behavioural changes in the population, to help ensure communities are aware of what procedures to take for certain risks; help, through advice, to prepare citizens for their role in an emergency; help prepare citizens for the importance of protecting their lives and those around them – family, neighbours and the community – and promote specific actions for the most vulnerable communities, with the aim of developing and implementing measures that increase knowledge and/or reduce the risk of catastrophe.
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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