Feeling Hot, Hot Hot! This UK Heatwave Isn’t As Unique As You Might Think

Thermometer showing a very high temperature against a blue sunny sky by panoramaphotos on Freepik.com
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England is currently in the midst of a mini-heatwave with temperatures set to reach at least 38°C – if not higher over the next couple of days.

England’s not usually known for its hot weather, we’re probably most famous for the fact that people think it rains here constantly and all we do is moan about how cold it is while carrying umbrellas everywhere.

Stereotypes aside, this temperature increase is part of a worrying trend we’re seeing in the UK that’s not only inconvenient to those who don’t have the luxury of air-con, it’s also dangerous to life, can damage infrastructure and wreck the economy.

What Is A Heatwave?

According to the UK Met Office

“A UK heatwave threshold is met when a location records a period of at least three consecutive days with daily maximum temperatures meeting or exceeding the heatwave temperature threshold. The threshold varies by UK county.”[1]The Met Office: What is a heatwave?.

The heatwave measurement was redefined by the Met Office in 2022. Previously they’d been using temperature data from 1981 to 2010 but have now changed to use data from 1991 to 2020 instead.

The UK gets its warm weather spells when an area of high pressure moves over the country. These are typically slow moving and can last for some time. Due to the jet stream, warmer air from the south – including Africa – is dragged up into the area of high pressure above us and this give us our scorching temperatures.

It’s Not As Bad As 1976 Though, Is It?

Well, yes and no.

The 1976 heatwave caused widespread infrastructure failure, death, disruption to work and the economy and had a knock-on effect for months.

June through to August 1976 gave the UK and Ireland the second hottest summer average on record, most places received less than half their usual summer rainfall and the country was plunged into a drought.

Heathrow had 16 consecutive days over 30°C and for 15 consecutive days somewhere in the UK was at least 32.2°C [2]Wikipedia: 1976 British Isles heat wave.

The heat caused an estimated 20% extra “excess deaths” (although this wasn’t as bad as 2003, more on that in a minute).

Forest fires broke out, destroying 50,000 trees in Hern Forest, Dorset although ironically this actually helped restore some areas of heathland which had become scrub due to over-grazing.

Because of the drought, water was rationed and public standpipes were placed in the most affected areas. Some rivers ran dry and the Haweswater reservoir had only 10% of its water left allowing people to walk on the lake bed 60 feet below the normal water level.

What About 1995 Then?

1995 was much drier than the heatwave in 1976 and it currently marks the warmest August on record [3]Wikipedia: 1995 British Isles heat wave.

There was a mini-heatwave at the end of June, with the warm weather continuing though July and on into August with many weather stations reporting less than 20% to 30% of their usual rainfall over the period.

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While there were drought conditions, the lessons from 1976 had been learned and there were extra water provisions available meaning that water wasn’t rationed (although I do seem to recall they were talking about it). The public were asked to be sensible with their water use and this alleviated the need to restrict water usage via a government order.

Don’t Forget 2003, 2006, 2013, 2018 And 2019

Yes! There have been a lot of heatwaves! 2003 is probably the most memorable as it was apparently the hottest that Europe has been since 1540[4]Wikipedia: 2003 European heat wave and there’s probably even more in the list above that I have missed.

While the weather may have been very nice in 2003, there were a over 70,000 excess deaths across Europe due to the heat and in the UK there was a 42% increase in deaths in nursing homes alone[5]Wikipedia: 2018 British Isles heat wave.

This heatwave brought the UKs highest ever recorded temperature of 38.5°C which stood until 2018 when it was beaten by the current record temperature of 38.7°C.

In 2006, the drought conditions caused a hosepipe ban in the UK and a series of power cuts occurred due to power lines being hit by lightning and the strain on the network from people running air conditioners[6]Wikipedia: 2006 European Heatwave.

in 2013, the UK had 19 days of continuously hot weather making that July the longest continuous period of hot weather in the UK since August 1997[7]Wikipedia: 2013 Great Britain and Ireland heat wave

The 2018 heatwave saw hosepipe bans being brought in again as the UK saw its highest ever temperatures with records seemingly being toppled on an almost daily basis.

Crops failed due to the heat, there were a number of large wildfires and the Government realised that it would now have to act in a more “joined up fashion” when it came to managing the climate and health events surrounding heatwaves.

The Impacts Of Heatwaves – Warning Systems

Following on from a series of heatwave events, the government launched two warning systems: Heat-Health Alert and the Extreme Heat Weather Warning.

Weather Warning System

This is the one you’re probably the most familiar with as they are shown on the weather reports on TV. They’re issued for weather events such as rain, wind, snow and now heat has been added to the list[8]i: What is an amber weather warning? Met Office heat alerts explained as rare ‘risk to life’ heatwave forecasted.

There are 3 warning levels:

Yellow

There will be a low level impact which may cause some disruption to transport networks, but you’ll probably be able to carry on with most things as normal.

Amber

There’s an increased likelihood that the weather will impact on your daily routine. This could be issues with the transportation network and power grid. It also means that there may be a potential risk to lives. You might need to make contingency plans in order to ensure your safety.

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Red

This warning level isn’t used that frequently and is used for the most serious weather events. It means that there will be a risk to lives, disruption to transportation and power networks could be widespread and you should take preventative action to ensure that you and your family are safe.

Heat-Health Alert System

This was introduced to enable public services such as the NHS plan for a major increase in admissions due to the weather.

There are four levels in the Heat-Health Alert System:

Level 1 – Green: Summer preparedness and long-term planning

Public services should plan for usual summer operations with “preparedness ongoing”

Level 2 – Yellow: Alert and readiness

Triggered as soon as the risk is 60% or above for threshold temperatures being reached in one or more regions on at least two consecutive days and the intervening night.

Public services should now be on alert and ready to put heat plans into action.

Level 3 – Amber: Heatwave action

Triggered when the Met Office confirms threshold temperatures for one of more regions have been reached for one day and the following night and the forecast for the following day is certain that the threshold will be met again.

This level requires healthcare providers to target specific actions aimed at particular high-risk groups – for example the elderly in nursing homes.

Level 4 – Red: National Emergency

Reached when a heatwave is so severe and/or prolonged that its effects extend outside the health and social care system.

At this level, illness and death may occur among the fit and healthy, and not just in high-risk groups.

As a reminder, the UK is currently on Level 4: Red Heat Alert so that’s nice.

Final Thoughts

As we move on through the 2020s, the summers are only going to get warmer and drier thanks to climate change.

It looks like these types of weather events are going to become the norm, rather that an odd blip once is a while.

Some people may say that the increase in temperature is good for the UK – they’ll argue that it will encourage more people to holiday at home and say that this is great for the environment as it means less flights and brilliant for the economy as it keeps money in the country.

I’d argue that those people are ignoring the actual costs of climate change here in the UK. Sure, it’s nice not to have to travel to Spain or Greece for a spot of warm sunny weather but what about the wider implications? The stress placed on the NHS? The failing crops which will mean our entire farming strategy will need to be rethought out? Road and rail networks melting due to the heat? The power grid going down intermittently as more people use air-con or things overheat?

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The impacts of this are further reaching that some of these people seem to realise.

So please, try to do your bit. Remember to reduce, reuse and recycle, turn off anything you’re not using and ditch the hosepipes and sprinklers.

While governments may be slow to act on climate change, we all have a part to play and can get ahead of them on helping out our poor environment and reduce the impact on our climate.

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