UK 'unprepared for extreme heat'
18 July 2022
The Met Office has declared a national Heat-Health Emergency for Monday to Wednesday (18-20 July).
Professor Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, said:
“This unprecedented red warning for extreme heat is a wake-up call about the climate emergency. We have had heatwaves in the UK before, but the intensity of heat that has been forecast, which will either break UK records or at least get very close, is enough to kill people and animals, damage property, and hobble the economy.
“Even as a climate scientist who studies this stuff, this is scary. This feels real. At the start of the week I was worried about my goldfish getting too hot. Now I'm worried about the survival of my family and my neighbours.
“These warnings are excellent. They are based on a strong likelihood of an extreme event occurring, and give advice on the actions people should take to keep themselves safe. Of course, the warning system will only be successful if people heed the warnings and take the actions necessary to keep themselves and others safe.
“Exactly one year on from the record floods in Germany, we should remember the lesson from that tragedy. Those floods were well forecast days in advance, but due to a range of failures in the chain of communication and action, people didn't know what to do, and hundreds died. Heat kills more people than floods, and high ground from heat can be hard to find.”
Professor Nigel Arnell, Professor of Climate System Science at the University of Reading, said:
“Our services and infrastructure are designed to cope with ‘normal’ weather, and many organisations have plans in place to deal with what they think of as ‘extreme’ conditions. However, we’re seeing more and more examples of extremes, and we’ve also seen evidence that we’re not as well prepared as we thought – look back to Storm Arwen.
“In the short term, we need to make sure our emergency plans are fit for purpose, and that we can act on the good warnings we get from the Met Office. But we can’t keep on dealing with extremes in crisis mode. They’re happening more and more frequently, so we need to improve our resilience to extreme weather events.
“This means not only making sure new buildings and infrastructure are designed to cope with a changing climate – the new Building Regulations on overheating are a good start – but also retrofitting our poorly performing stock of buildings. This will help us deal with rising energy bills in winter too. We need to make sure our infrastructure and important bits of kit are resilient to the higher temperatures we are seeing this week and expecting to see more in the future. And we need to build in more greenery in our cities to lower temperatures.
“However, whilst the individual technical and behavioural solutions are relatively straightforward progress is limited because responsibilities for action are spread across departments, agencies, private sector organisations and individuals. We will only make real progress when adaptation and resilience is given a high enough political priority.”
Dr Claudia Di Napoli, a heatwaves researcher at the University of Reading, said:
“The dangers of heat to human health are multiple: dehydration, overheating, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. These must not be underestimated as their consequences can be fatal.
“Some people are more vulnerable to the dangers of heat than others. These include infants, the elderlies, the homeless, outdoor workers and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Research has shown that, despite being exposed to higher mean global temperatures, people still die because of heat.
“Heat-related deaths are preventable though. Heat early warning systems are the most powerful tool we have in this sense.”
Professor Richard Allan, professor of climate science at the University of Reading, said:
“Summer heatwaves in the UK are usually caused by an extended period of dry, sunny conditions, usually associated with high pressure that snuffs out cloud formation. Because there is little soil moisture, the sun’s energy heats the ground and the air above rather than being used up evaporating water.
“These conditions can be intensified by hot, arid winds blowing from continental Europe where heat and drought have been building over the summer and this will affect the UK early next week as a weather system to the west of Spain pushes this hot air northwards. Higher temperatures and drier soils due to human caused climate change are turning strong heatwaves into extreme or even unprecedented heatwaves.
“Human caused climate change is intensifying heatwaves, droughts and flooding events. Heating from greenhouse gas emissions make the atmosphere warmer and more thirsty for water which can parch and scorch one region and deluge the larger amounts of moisture in storms elsewhere.
“When weather patterns produce intense rainfall, droughts or heatwave events, like the one currently being experienced in the UK this July, the severity of these extremes are intensified by the human caused warming of climate.”
Professor Len Shaffrey, Professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading, said:
“The anticyclonic high pressure that brought clear skies and warm temperatures to the UK over the weekend will move to the east during Monday and Tuesday. This will allow the extremely hot air that has been building up over the European continent over the past few days to flow northwards, bringing potentially record-breaking temperatures.
“As recently outlined in the sixth IPCC assessment report, climate change will play a role in the record-breaking intensity of this heatwave. As global temperatures increase due to climate change, we expect heatwaves to become more frequent and more intense.”
Dr Liz Stephens, Associate Professor in Climate Risks and Resilience at the University of Reading, said:
"The 2003 heatwave led to over 2,000 deaths in the UK alone, with a UK record 38 degrees being recorded for the first time in Kent. In contrast, predictions for this heatwave suggest 38 degrees to be widespread across England, a reminder that climate change is making heatwaves more frequent and more intense. This won't be the last time that temperature records are broken in the UK.
"Many parts of the country will experience temperatures well beyond what has been experienced before, in Sheffield the record temperature of 35.1 degrees set in 2019 is forecasted to be broken by over 5 degrees. While our neighbours in Southern Europe may be used to this heat, our infrastructure is simply not resilient. Roads will melt, railway lines will buckle, and even healthy people will struggle to stay cool in homes that are poorly designed."
Chloe Brimicombe, a PhD researcher on heatwaves at the University of Reading, said:
“We are not ready for this level of heat in the UK. We lack cooling measures and tend to underestimate heat as a threat. When we think about heatwaves many of us picture sun bathing on the beach rather than hospital beds. These temperatures are a very severe threat to people’s health, especially to the vulnerable.
“This heatwave is more serious in terms of a risk to life than the major storms that hit the UK earlier this year. Add to this the fact nobody has ever experienced anything like this before in the UK and it becomes apparent that a serious situation could unfold.
“Declaring a national heat emergency was essential, as we all need to take action to prepare for this dangerous heat. We need leadership like this at government level in the decades to come, or we face losing many more lives as extreme heat becomes more likely under climate change.”