PARIS — Europeans struggled Friday to find relief from unusually high temperatures, but the U.N. weather agency said the continent is better prepared than ever to avoid major heat casualties.
From Spain to Poland, temperatures have climbed as a mass of hot air from Africa has pushed northward. Some cities have seen temperatures near or beyond 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), and they're expected to stay high through the weekend.
World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis told reporters Friday that Europe is "much, much better prepared" to cope with the heat than in 2003, when tens of thousands died in a heat wave — mostly elderly people in France.
Many European governments now have early warning systems in place. French authorities were reaching out to vulnerable people and encouraging the homeless to use public baths. In Berlin, Europe's biggest animal shelter was letting its dogs splash about in a pool.
A sudden sun shower, accompanied by a rainbow, cooled the tens of thousands waiting Friday for Pope Francis to appear at Saint Peter's Square in Rome — where temperatures hit 33 degrees C (91 F).
"First the heat, then a shower. The Lord is good," a smiling Francis later told the faithful as many held umbrellas that kept both the sun and the raindrops away. "Even the water is welcome, since the Lord made it."
Meteorologists say the heat wave is likely to slam Rome on Sunday.
Authorities in the southwestern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, meanwhile, imposed a speed limit of 80 km/h (50 mph) on all concrete highways to prevent accidents. The extreme heat causes concrete to expand and push upward.
Experts, meanwhile, were assessing the possible effects of climate change on the heat wave.
"Man-made global warming greatly increases the number of such heat waves," Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said in a statement, citing Europe's heat wave and others in Pakistan, India and the western U.S.
Others said it was too early to tell.
"It's is premature to say whether it (the heat wave) can be attributed to climate change or whether it is due to naturally occurring climate variability," said Omar Baddour, who coordinates the U.N.'s world climate data and monitoring program.
Frances D'Emilio contributed from Rome.