UK could face 40°C temperatures every three years, warns Met Office

Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent and intense

The scorching temperatures are a stark reminder of the impacts of global warming. PA
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The UK could experience temperatures exceeding 40°C every three years by the end of the century if global greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced, the Met Office has warned.

Britain's first 40°C temperature was recorded on July 19, 2022.

With the country's infrastructure and buildings designed for a milder climate, scientists describe the UK as “dangerously unprepared” for such extreme heat events.

Unless the UK commits to significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures exceeding 40°C could become a recurring feature every three years by 2100, according to the Met Office.

With the escalating impacts of climate change and the relentless rise in global temperatures, extreme heat has emerged as a 'silent killer'.

The toll of the 2022 heatwave was devastating, with an estimated 3,500 people succumbing to the extreme temperatures.

Barcelona's Institute for Global Health led a study quantifying the fatalities and highlighting the dire consequences of increasingly frequent and intense heatwaves.

The blistering summer conditions also sparked some of the most destructive grass fires England has ever witnessed.

The London Fire Brigade received more calls on one day than on any other since the Second World War, with dozens of homes razed in the capital.

Out of the 46 fire services across the UK, 11 declared major incidents.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that if we continue on our current path of greenhouse gas emissions from energy use, agriculture, waste, and industry, the chances of similar or more severe heat events will increase dramatically.

The UK's preparedness for extreme heat

Scientists from the University of Oxford have warned of the immense challenges ahead, particularly the need for large-scale adaptation like introducing ceiling fans, better ventilation, and shaded protection.

Yet, according to Dr Radhika Khosla, these vital adaptation efforts barely feature in the UK Government's planning. The UK's net zero strategy, she said, barely mentions sustainable cooling.

Dr Khosla said: “Without adequate interventions to promote sustainable cooling we are likely to see a sharp increase in the use of energy-guzzling systems like air conditioning, which could further increase emissions and lock us into a vicious cycle of burning fossil fuels to make us feel cooler while making the world outside hotter.”

UK heatwave sees highest-ever recorded temperatures

UK heatwave sees highest-ever recorded temperatures

A lack of clarity in the British Government over who is responsible for the UK's preparedness for extreme heat further complicates the situation, said Dr Candice Howarth of the London School of Economics' Grantham Institute. She said: “This is a new risk to the UK, it's an invisible risk. You can almost see it as a silent killer”.

She emphasises the need to be ready for the crisis instead of merely responding afterwards.

Preparation includes retrofitting buildings and fostering cultural and behavioural changes, such as promoting better hydration, avoiding direct sunlight, and improving home ventilation.

The unseen risks

Unlike the visible devastation caused by floods or storms, extreme heat is a stealthy danger. It does not leave an overt trail of destruction, but its effects on people are devastating, particularly those who are elderly, very young, or suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses.

As Oli Claydon of the Met Office pointed out: “We're already experiencing the impacts of climate change now, so there's already a need to adapt to the types of weather extremes that we can see in the UK.”

The European heatwave: A harbinger of a warming world

Europe, the world's fastest-warming continent, is grappling with the continuing heatwave, as temperatures in Italy's Sicily and Sardinia are predicted to reach 48°C.

The escalating temperatures are fanning wildfires near Athens, leading to evacuations and challenging emergency services.

World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said the current heatwave “underlines the increasing urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and as deeply as possible”.

June 2023 was declared the world's hottest June on record, and July is poised to break more records.

The heatwave is not limited to Europe. Parts of Asia and North America are also experiencing record temperatures.

In China, temperatures reached 52.2ºC in the Xinjiang region, a new high for mid-July.

The US, particularly California and Arizona, is also suffering under intense heat, with Death Valley reaching a near-record 52ºC.

Updated: July 18, 2023, 10:17 AM