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From the frozen plains of Iceland to the wildfires of Portugal.

Shaun Merrick, our managing director and Ian Haslop operations director of Speed Couriers (Northern), the leading provider of Same Day and Medical Couriers across the North of England, report on the devastating effects of climate change in Portugal.   

Following on from visiting Iceland in 2021 to see the dramatic effects Global Warming was having on this island with glaciers melting and retreating further each year, we wanted to see the “polar” opposite effect it was having on the climate hot spot of Portugal.     

In December 2019, during the European Council meeting, EU President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Portugal is one of the countries most affected by climate change.” Portugal is a climate hotspot, with the Mediterranean region projected to experience the greatest drying among 26 regions globally

Portugal has been showing a tendency towards more intense extreme weather events, such as heat waves and droughts. The increase in severity of drought, flooding, and wildfires is already having an impact on the population, as well as agriculture and the economy. To experience this first hand and as part of our company’s journey to Net Zero we visited in July 2022 at the peak of the summer heatwave. Temperatures in excess of 45°C, motorbikes and wearing full sets of leathers did not bode well for a comfortable trip. Not only were the temperatures soaring with little let off at night, but we were also in the middle of the wildfire season recently extended in 2017 from 2 months to 5 months. Just the month before in June 2022, 96% of Portugal had been classified as being in a severe drought.

The planned route was to keep away from the motorways and travel through Portugal to the Faro region in the south, allowing us to see the more rural areas, mountains, the plains of Alentejo and reservoirs along the way. We wanted to see the real affect this was having on the people and the land they were living in. It was sure to throw up many examples of how Portugal was being affected by global warming.  We were aware it was going to be hot, but we had never experienced heat like this whilst riding a motorcycle. The first night in Portugal where the temperature barely dropped below 32°C we discussed and agreed it was too dangerous to ride in the heat of the day and we needed to change our riding hours. We had to start riding at 6am with a plan of finishing for the day around 2pm before temperatures peaked. While we thought it could not get hotter than 45°C the next day temperatures hit an incredible 47°C. It was a good job we were travelling light and able to load up with lots of water. The problem was we failed miserably to get up early with very little sleep due to the incredible temperatures during the night.

Following breakfast and catching up on the news we decided to make a move albeit cautiously around 9.30am. The news had highlighted our routes could be seriously affected by forest fires that were now raging within the central part of Portugal, just where we were and where we were intending to travel to. In an ironic way that was good as this was the reason we came although it also flagged the possible dangerous situations we could be riding through and how serious this was for the Portugal and the people in these areas.

Of all Mediterranean countries, Portugal is the one that has suffered the most from forest fires. In the last 30 years, 35% of the region’s fire incidents were in Portugal. On average, 3% of Portugal’s forests burn every year. 

It did not take us long before we could see a lot of activity with local fire brigades within every village or town we travelled through. The stark effect of the heat could be seen everywhere! When crossing river bridges, we could see the rivers had either completely dried up or had very little water running through them.  We had reached the area of Mirandela at around 2pm that day, where we stopped at what would usually be three very big reservoirs in the area. A great place to cool down we thought. We were presented with a complete contrast, two of these were completely dried up and the largest of the three extremely low.

We managed to talk to some of the locals who luckily spoke very good English and told us it was getting worse every year. The heat combined with lack of rain was destroying their forests, crops and livestock. What we had not witnessed was a wildfire although they advised us to be very careful the next day traveling through the Guarda area as fires there were particularly bad. Guarda is about halfway down the country and is one of the narrowest points of Portugal from east to west.

The next morning, we set off very early having caught up with the news and stocked up with water. The news was not good, we were now going towards the worst of the fires to get to our destination near Faro. We were being presented with difficult decisions of continuing with the potential we were going towards the fires, our safety and that we did not create unnecessary challenges for the fire services fighting what seemed to be a relentless wall of fire across the country. We decided to continue!

The 6am start time meant clear roads but rapidly rising temperatures. It was not long before the rising air temperature was being mixed with the smell of burning wood mixed with clouds of smoke in the distance. We were passing more dried up rivers as we rode through the hills. It seemed every bridge we crossed underneath there was no river! It was a shocking and quite a depressing thing to see. We made good time towards Villa Real and then on towards Viseu while making several diversions due to closed roads for fires that were raging. Access only for Firefighter signs were a plenty. Our senses were heightened with warnings of wildfires starting practically anywhere. Every fuel station or café we stopped at had news on regarding local diversions and fires in the area. Some devastating newscasts of farms or even villages losing everything, quite harrowing to watch. We were seeing firsthand how local communities’ agriculture and food production was being impacted by these events caused by global warming. We were constantly being told on our journey that it was climate change that was reducing the crops they could grow. The droughts and then the floods combined with heatwaves and wildfires had already reduced the yield of certain crops particularly typical Mediterranean crops like olives and grapevines.      

Having travelled across the lowlands we wanted to see the effects in the mountains. We were heading towards the Serra de Alveos mountains which meant gaining some height and getting away from the lowlands where the fires were raging. It did just that, the smoke had gone, the temperature lowered slightly the higher we climbed although it was still unbearable. We could see the smoke and devastation left behind us. The next day we reached Faro with fires still raging all around us but thankfully being contained with planes constantly flying above us carrying water to put on the fires. We could see that a massive fire, thankfully now under control but still burning was very close to us. We stayed in Faro for a further four days and that fire was still burning the day we left.

While we could not get near the burning areas, we were told hundreds of firefighters were at the scene working hard to control them.

It was a sad time for Portugal, a pilot lost his life tackling the blaze, the news was reporting and showing people escaping the fires in remote areas and unfortunately some older people that sadly were taken by these fires. Thousands of acres of forests were lost, thousands of people were temporarily evacuated, thousands of people’s livelihoods were destroyed, and people lost their lives.

It was an incredibly humbling experience to see the devastation that is caused by not only our actions but our NON actions in the fight against climate change. The two opposites from the cold of Iceland to the extreme temperatures of Portugal all intricately linked to Global Warming.

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