The European heat wave peaked on Tuesday, with a new national temperature record set in the UK — the latest catastrophic extreme weather event in a litany of evidence that the world has entered the emergency phase of climate change.
Although Tuesday’s temperatures in Britain were the culmination of the heat wave, scorching temperatures, deadly wildfires, and even rapid glacial collapses in the Alps have been accelerating over recent days. More than 1,700 people have died so far this month in Spain and Portugal due to the heat, with more likely to come. Simultaneous extreme weather events around the world — from Kenya to Kyrgyzstan — proves that this particular heat wave isn’t a fluke.
The previously hottest temperature ever recorded in the United Kingdom was 38.7 deg C (101.7 deg F) on July 25th in 2019 at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. At least 34 cities broke that mark on Tuesday.
First, at about 1 pm on Tuesday, the temperature at London’s Heathrow Airport hit 40.2 deg C (104.4 deg F). A little while later, the village of Coningsby, east of Sheffield, reached 40.3 deg C — the new highest temperature recorded in UK history.
So far this year to date, wildfires in Europe have burned more area than in any other year on record. Last week, Madrid, Spain recorded its hottest day ever and temperatures in Paris, France rose as high as 40.5 deg C (104.9 deg F), its second-hottest day in history. In 2003, a long-duration heatwave of similar temperatures centered in France killed more than 70,000 people.
Strong winds from the south bringing warm and dry air northward from Spain and Portugal also helped fan countless wildfires across the British Isles — an unheard-of event on such a dramatic scale. In London, vegetation fires quickly spread into neighborhoods with fire forces overwhelmed by towering flames. Wildfires also swept through Ireland, as a new all-time heat record was recorded in Dublin. The flames were reminiscent of wildfires in California or Greece, half a continent to the south. One London-based weather forecaster remarked simply: “This is not the Britain I know.”
Normal life was on hold as the heat created suffering in virtually every facet of life in a place where a warm summer day. Tuesday morning’s temperature was also the warmest morning ever recorded in London by a wide margin, giving residents little chance prepare. One man even resorted to filling up his rubbish bin with water in a desperate attempt to cool off.
The heat broke national records in Wales and Scotland by nearly 2 deg C (3.5 deg F) — a shocking amount for an all-time record in a place with nearly 200 years of continuous weather records, the longest in the world.
Coningsby, at 53.5 degrees N latitude, is similarly as far north as southern Alaska and has an average mid-July temperature of about 22 deg C (72 deg F). The chances of such a place reaching temperatures recorded on Tuesday without the added heating of climate change is nearly a 5-sigma event, or about one in a million. Said one meteorologist of the record in Coningsby, “there has never been a day even close to today.”
The connection between this heat wave and climate change caused by fossil fuel burning is absolute. Nine of the 10 hottest days in UK history have occurred since 1990. According to a 2019 study, temperatures above 40 deg C are considered impossible to achieve in the British Isles without the added heating of climate change. Temperatures this hot were once considered science fiction — a dire warning of a distant future in 2050 without climate action. Now that future has arrived 28 years too soon.
In preparation for the heat wave, the UK Met Office issued a ‘Red Alert’ heat warning for the first time, equivalent to a national emergency. Widespread impacts are expected to transport, energy, housing, and other public utility systems. On Monday, planes were grounded at a military airport in England because the tarmac itself melted.
In a conversation with Currently on Sunday, UK Met Office climate scientist Richard Betts issued a strong warning.
“It’s clear that the UK is not ready for such high temperatures,” said Betts. “Transport networks, railways, energy systems, buildings and so on — which have been set up for the climate that used to be — are not ready for the temperatures we’re expecting.”
Buildings in the UK tend to be built to keep warm in winter, and only 0.5% of residential homes in the UK have air conditioning. A full accounting of the impact of this heat wave will surely be felt by those most vulnerable: people of color, children, lower-income people, people with chronic health conditions, and pregnant people.