In Madrid, where it hit around 90 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday, schools were allowed to close early to avoid the heat. In Catalonia, it’s so dry that the valves of an irrigation canal have been closed for lack of water. And in Seville, the police are investigating the death of a horse pulling a tourist carriage from apparent heatstroke.
With temperatures over 100 degrees in early April, people in Spain have moved into summer mode, looking for shade, hitting the beach. But the extreme heat — so early in the year — has prompted fears that it is no longer a seasonal phenomenon but a new daily reality.
On Thursday, Spain’s mainland recorded its hottest ever temperature for April, reaching 38.8 degrees Celsius, about 102 degrees Fahrenheit, in the southern city of Cordoba, according to the country’s national weather service. And in several areas of the country, thermometers have exceeded seasonal norms by more than 25 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching values typical of summer.
Coinciding with a long-running drought that has already depleted reservoirs and dried up fields, the extreme heat has left experts and the authorities bracing for an earlier-than-expected return of heat-related disasters, such as wildfires, and revising their predictions.
“It’s really extraordinary,” Cayetano Torres, a spokesman for the weather service, told Spanish television this week. “We’re quite surprised.”
The cause of the abnormally high temperatures is “the entry of a very warm and dry air mass from North Africa,” that is just sitting over Spain and not moving much, the weather service said in a statement.
Even residents of Cordoba, used to very warm springs, were surprised by the extreme heat.
“We thought it would come later in May or in June,” Manuel Suárez Fernández, who works in a pub on the bank of the Guadalquivir River, said in a phone interview. “But each year it starts earlier than the previous one.”
Mr. Suárez Fernández said hardly anyone was venturing out into the streets in the afternoon to avoid peak temperatures. “They lock themselves up in the house, stock up on fresh water and go out when night falls,” he said.
Spain’s weather agency had warned for several days of the incoming high temperatures, which peaked on Thursday and Friday.
In and around Madrid, the authorities worked to help hospitals, schools and health centers cope, including by ensuring that adequate air conditioning is provided. They will also open outdoor swimming pools, a fixture of the Spanish capital during summer, in mid-May, a month earlier than usual. Subway trains will be more frequent to avoid overcrowding in scorching heat.
Residents are being warned to stay hydrated and to provide care for vulnerable people such as children and the elderly.
The city of Seville, in the south, has brought in extra medical personnel to help people suffering from heat-related illnesses during the “Feria de Abril,” a weeklong fair that started Sunday and usually attracts hundreds of thousands of revelers. Spanish television footage showed many participants in the fair standing in the shade in tents.
The extreme heat has also affected nearby countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Portugal, said Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist who keeps track of extreme temperatures around the world.
“This magnitude is extremely rare in such a big area and for several days in a row,” said Mr. Herrera, who described the episode as a heat wave. “Hundreds of stations are breaking their records with huge margins of up to 5 degrees Celsius above the previous ones and even approaching the records of May.”
While tying a single heat wave to climate change requires analysis, scientists have no doubt that heat waves around the world are becoming hotter, more frequent and longer lasting.
Spain has been particularly affected by higher temperatures. There, summer-like temperatures now last on average almost five weeks longer than in the early 1980s, according to a study published by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia this week. Spain experienced its hottest year on record in 2022.
The current high temperatures are likely to exacerbate the situation in a country that is already suffering from a long-running drought. Reservoirs today are at 50 percent of their capacity, the result of more than 30 consecutive months of below-average rainfall.
“The persistent dry heat of this spring in the Iberian Peninsula is putting the agriculture under stress and, in the medium term, it’s possible that we will suffer water shortages,” Mr. Herrera said.
The Coordinator of Farmers’ and Ranchers’ Organization, an agricultural association in Spain, said in a recent report that the drought has caused “irreversible losses to more than 3.5 million hectares [more than 8.5 million acres] of cereals.” The organization predicted that wheat and barley crops in four regions are virtually lost.
This week, Luis Planas, Spain’s agriculture minister, said that he had requested from the European Union financial aid for farm workers afflicted by the drought, including emergency funds from the bloc’s common agricultural policy. “It’s an exceptional circumstance,” Mr. Planas said at a government news conference on Tuesday.
Paqui Doblas, the manager of a small hotel in the southern coastal city of Malaga, said that water supply in the region was dwindling fast, affecting the production of fruits like avocados and mangos.
Ms. Doblas said many people in Malaga had lived through water shortages in the past and had taken to saving water in anticipation of heat waves. But she said she wished local authorities had taken more precautionary measures.
“I feel a little bit like we’re the orchestra on the Titanic,” she said in a phone interview. “The ship sinks and we keep playing.”
Spain’s weather agency has warned that the combination of drought and high temperatures is increasing the risk of forest fires, a phenomenon that the country knows all too well.
Last summer, dozens of wildfires swept its territory for days, displacing thousands of residents and consuming a record 750,000 acres of land, according to data from the European Forest First Information System.
Scientists and local authorities are now worried about wildfires breaking out increasingly earlier in the year. Spain’s first major wildfire of 2023 occurred last month.