ATHENS — On the hottest day of Greece’s record-breaking heat wave, when temperatures in Athens rose to 111 degrees Fahrenheit and wildfires choked the air, Eleni Myrivili stopped hanging laundry on her rooftop behind the Acropolis because she could hardly breathe from the heat.
“I could only take short, kind of burning breaths,” she said, recalling that ash from the fires also turned her black clothes white. “It was scary.”
The heat’s intensity (as high as 44 degrees on the Celsius scale) only increased the urgency that Ms. Myrivili brings to her new job as Athens’ — and Europe’s — first “chief heat officer,” tasked with giving one of the world’s most ancient cities an inhabitable future.
As heat waves have been scorching Athens, the continent’s most sweltering capital, new wildfires broke out this past week in the city, adding to the more than 200,000 acres of forest consumed by wildfires around the country.
It is not just Greece. In recent days, a heat wave on the Italian island of Sicily appears to have resulted in the hottest recorded temperature in European history, and fires have broken out across the Italian south. Europe’s summer of natural disasters has included increasingly frequent extreme weather events that have caused fatal flooding in Germany and Belgium, as well as in Turkey. Every week there is a new nightmare.
Ms. Myrivili’s appointment is a recognition of that new reality. But it is also a foreboding sign that having someone to grapple with suffocating temperatures may be a mainstay of the municipal cityscape, as necessary and unremarkable as a transportation, sanitation or police commissioner.
“Heat is an invisible and insidious killer,” Ms. Myrivili said. “Heat is one of those climate hazards that you don’t really see. It’s hard for people to talk about it. You don’t see flying roofs and cars flooded. It is really important to get people to understand why it is dangerous.”
She predicted that without action, the future for Athens would be bleak and airless. The capital would become an “urban heat island,” she said, with empty squares and cafes, fewer tourists and an exodus of residents who have the means and opportunities to live elsewhere.
Athens, a vibrant, chaotic place, would wilt in the sun.
But Ms. Myrivili said the conditions that made the city so challenging also made it an “interesting pilot program” for the region. Athens straddles the cultures of Europe and the Middle East, East and West, and is neither extremely rich nor poor. “It’s a good city to try things out and see what works,” she said.
Athens, the second most densely populated city in Europe after Paris, often heats up like an oven.
Apartment buildings known as polykatoikies were erected in the capital in an anarchic explosion of garden-swallowing development after Greece’s civil war to accommodate a great migration from the countryside. But the buildings’ cement and tar-blackened rooftops absorb the heat. And as Athens sprawled into the surrounding mountains, and the car became king, the city added miles of asphalt that reach searing temperatures. The lack of green spaces in Athens deprives residents of respite, and even when temperatures fall at night, streets and buildings ooze heat.
“At night, the city gets very hot and you can’t cope, and the baby wakes up in the middle of the night from the heat,” Carene Kengne, 25, said as she pushed a stroller, shading herself and her baby boy under a kiosk. She said she did not have air-conditioning in her apartment, and that the surrounding fires and intense heat, much higher than in her native Cameroon, scared her.
Even the school where she learns Greek canceled her language lessons because it was too hot. “They told us to stay at home,” she said.
Without a chance to cool down, Athens residents risked serious health issues. As did those who had to toil in the sun.
“It’s very difficult,” said Panagiotis Nasos, 48, as he took a break at 1 p.m. from putting up signs and scaffolding in Syntagma Square, in central Athens. He sat in a sliver of shade, his blue shirt stained with sweat. “The temperature gets hotter and hotter every year,” he said, adding that his shifts had started increasingly earlier to avoid the heat. Work, he said, “used to be easier.”
Converting Athens into a city that can mitigate the heat has been Ms. Myrivili’s obsession since 2007, when she watched TV footage of Greek wildfires from her mother’s Athens apartment.
Aug. 20, 2021, 4:35 p.m. ET
“It really upset me that we just watched the fires,” she said. “This total powerlessness of just sitting there watching, day after day, fires.”
So Ms. Myrivili, the granddaughter of Stratis Myrivilis, a novelist regarded as one of Greece’s most important 20th-century writers, decided to get into politics.
A social anthropology professor, Ms. Myrivili was elected to the Athens City Council in 2014 and served as a deputy mayor from 2017 to 2019, focusing on the city’s resilience amid climate change. Out of government, she eventually became a leader on heat issues for a joint program on urban resilience run by the Atlantic Council and the Rockefeller Foundation that has drawn tens of millions of dollars from philanthropists. The group has engineered placing heat officers on every continent. This year, Miami-Dade County in Florida appointed North America’s first heat officer, and Freetown in Sierra Leone is expected to make Africa’s first such appointment soon.
The mayor of Athens, Kostas Bakoyannis, appointed Ms. Myrivili in July and gave her instructions to carve out a role with real influence for herself and her successors, and to help advise other baking European cities.
As soon as she started, fires started burning again. This time, Ms. Myrivili hoped they would at least spread awareness about the threat the city faced.
She said scientists and officials were discussing ways to make the threats clearer, like giving heat waves human names, as is done with hurricanes. Others argue that it would be better to brand them with the names of the cities. In any case, the goal is to develop standard categories to make it easier for policymakers to put emergency measures in place and for TV meteorologists to raise the alarm.
But warning bells are not enough. Ms. Myrivili said she also had to outfit more homes with air-conditioning, persuade electric companies to reroute energy from industrial to residential areas during heat waves, and make air-conditionedcenters — where people can cool down — more reachable and desirable. Asphalt needs to be more reflective, and the tops of buildings need to be covered in solar panels and roof gardens. In the next five to 10 years, Athens also needs thousands of new trees to cool the air and to provide shade.
Without green spaces, many Athenians have found the city unlivable.
“I’m happy I’m not here,” Maria Tsani, 30, originally from Athens but now a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics in the Netherlands, said on a recent visit home. “There are no trees and parks, and it can be difficult to walk around with no shade.”
She had brought her boyfriend, Selim Sami, 30, a scientific researcher, to Athens for the first time. The couple and a friend descended from the Acropolis, where Ms. Myrivili said the surface of the stones reached 60 degrees Celsius. “It’s quite painful,” Mr. Sami said.
Dimitra Gasparis, 83, agreed as she leaned on her cane in the shade of a local church. “Too hot,” she said, adding that she did not remember such sustained heat during her childhood. “I don’t like this.”
Neither did people in the city’s far western areas, which burn flame red on a map of the hottest neighborhoods in Athens. On a recent afternoon there, in a mix of industry and residential neighborhoods, workers loaded energy drinks onto trucks and families rode around with the back hatches of their cars open for ventilation.
Dimitra Founta, 49, said that during the recent heat wave, to try to avoid its wrath, she had to run to her air-conditioned car from her office at an importing company.
“We don’t protect our environment,” she said. “It’s going to get worse.”
It is Ms. Myrivili’s job to keep that from happening, but the fires raging across Greece will most likely lower her odds as they decimate the trees that lower temperatures.
And even when the temperatures subside, the lack of trees means there will be fewer roots to absorb water when rains finally come. Athens decades ago cemented over its rivers, leaving no place for water to go, Ms. Myrivili said: “We are going to have incredible flooding.”