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ENVIRONMENT

French riviera: Unesco tsunami warning for Marseille and Cannes

Unesco has announced that the Mediterranean - including the French cities of Marseille and Cannes - will be at risk of tsunamis within the next 30 years, and therefore has included it in its tsunami protection program

French riviera: Unesco tsunami warning for Marseille and Cannes
Archival photo of boats in the Port of Nice in 1979 after the tsunami. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / ARCHIVES / AFP)

The risk of tsunamis in the Mediterranean Sea is real – on October 16th, 1979, a tsunami, caused by a landslide, hit the coast of Nice and killed a dozen people. More recently, the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea was hit by a tsunami in 2020.

But the climate crisis and rising sea levels mean that experts fear that in the future they will no longer be rare events along the Mediterranean coast.

Unesco has therefore announced that it will be adding thousands of communities to its Tsunami Ready Plan, including the French cities of Marseille and Cannes.

Experts fear that tsunamis in the Mediterranean could reach up to a metre in height and are almost guaranteed in the next 30 years.

According to Unesco’s calculations, “there is a 100% chance” that tsunamies will occur in the Mediterranean “over the next thirty years.” Therefore, the UN organisation has called for public authorities to institute their multistep programme, which would encourage awareness, warning, and prevention mechanisms for at-risk coastal communities. 

The preparedness program seeks to ensure that these cities and towns, like Marseille and Cannes, will have the necessary response mechanisms in place by 2030.

The Tsunami Ready program, which has already been piloted in dozens of communities across the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and was prepared by Unesco experts, establishes twelve indicators to be respected by the communities concerned. This means that Marseille and Cannes will be expected create plans for identifying tsunamis threats and build community awareness and preparation for how to cope with tsunamis.

The twelve readiness indicators are shown in the graphic below:

Communities must meet all 12 indicators, which cover Assessment, Preparedness, and Response, will be recognized as ‘Tsunami Ready’ by the UNESCO/IOC.

Tsunamis are usually caused by seismic activity (78 percent of them) – like the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed over 210,000 people, but 10 percent are also caused by volcanic activity and landslides, like the tsunami that hit the Pacific island of Tonga in January. Meanwhile, the rare 2 percent are caused by meteorological activity.

However, the increased concern for tsunamis along France’s Mediterranean coast is in part due to rising sea levels (resulting from the climate crisis) and the need to better monitor underwater volcanos.

Rising sea levels can lead to an increase in the power of tsunamis – up to tenfold. In some parts of the world, such as Macao, scientists estimate that  tsunamis will have twice their current impact by 2050.

Even a tsunami of 50cm high can do a lot of damage – what sounds like a small flow of water is actually capable of lifting a car and depositing it several dozen meters away.

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Fears for 2022 French wine vintages because of ‘stressed grapes’

Forced to start picking grapes much earlier than normal because of torrid temperatures, winemakers across France are worrying that grape quality will suffer from the climate-induced stress.

Fears for 2022 French wine vintages because of 'stressed grapes'

The exceptionally dry conditions spread from the rugged hills of Herault along the Mediterranean, where picking is already underway, to the normally verdant Alsace in the northeast.

Waves of extreme heat this summer accelerated grape maturation, meaning harvests had to begin one to three weeks early or more — in Languedoc-Roussillon, some growers even started in late July.

“We were all a bit surprised, they began maturing very rapidly these past few days,” said Francois Capdellayre, president of the Dom Brial cooperative in Baixas, outside Perpignan.

He said the shears came out on August 3 for the region’s typical muscat grapes, followed by chardonnay and grenache blanc.

“In more than 30 years I’ve never started my harvests on August 9,” said Jerome Despey, a vineyard owner in the Herault department.

Stressed out

Like other farmers, French winegrowers have been grappling for years with increasingly common extreme weather including spring freezes, devastating hailstorms and unseasonably heavy rains.

But this summer’s combination of a historic drought — July was the driest month on record since 1961 — and high temperatures are taking a particular toll on vineyards.

READ MORE: French AOP cheese the latest victim of France’s drought

Only 10 percent of France’s winegrowing parcels use artificial irrigation systems, which can be difficult or prohibitively expensive to install.

And while grape vines are more hardy than many other crops, with roots that descend deep into the ground over years of growth, even they can withstand only so much.

When water is scarce, the vines suffer “hydric stress” and protect themselves by shedding leaves and no longer providing nutrients to grapes, stunting their growth.

In Alsace, “we haven’t had a drop of rain in two months,” said Gilles Ehrhart, president of the AVA growers’ association.

“We’re going to have a very, very small harvest” after picking begins around August 26, he said.

And when temperatures surpass 38C, “the grape burns — it dries up, loses volume and quality suffers” because the resulting alcohol content “is too high for consumers,” said Pierre Champetier, president of the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for the Ardeche region south of Lyon.

Champetier began harvesting Monday, when “40 years ago, we started around September 20,” he said.

Now he worries that global warming will make such premature harvests “normal.”

Quality at risk

Some winemakers are still holding off in hopes of rain in coming weeks, such as red grape producers in Herault, where harvests should begin as usual in early September.

In Burgundy, which two years ago saw its earliest harvest debut — August 16 — in more than four centuries of keeping track, picking will start at cellars in Saone-et-Loire around August 25.

READ MORE: Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

But just south in the Rhone Valley, “the heatwave has accelerated maturation by more than 20 days compared to last year,” according to the Inter-Rhone producers’ association.

They nevertheless hope grape quality will hold up, as do Champagne growers in the northeast, where harvesting will begin late August — though yields are set to fall nine percent year-on-year because of a brutal spring cold snap and hailstorms.

Bordeaux plans to kick off on August 17 with the grapes for the region’s sparkling wines — appreciated by connoisseurs but just one percent of overall production.

Next will come “dry whites, sweet whites and then the reds,” said Christophe Chateau of the CIVB producers’ group, though the precise dates will be set only next week.

But he warned that even rainfall from storms forecast across France starting this weekend will “not be enough” to ensure a “beautiful vintage.”

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