According to a new Met Office event summary, the UK’s recent extreme heat was far more intense and widespread than previous comparable heatwaves. This was the first time 40°C was recorded in the UK.
For the first time in recorded history, parts of the United Kingdom are sweltering in temperatures that could soon reach 40 degrees Celsius (that’s more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit for American readers). It’s the first time those temperatures have been forecast in the UK, according to the Met Office, which also issued its first-ever “Red Extreme” heat warning for parts of England.
On July 19, a new record daily maximum temperature of 40.3°C was recorded in Coningsby, Lincolnshire, breaking the previous record by 1.6°C. A total of 46 stations in the UK broke the previous UK record of 38.7°C. Many long-running stations with 100+ year records recorded their highest ever temperature, some by extraordinary margins of 3 to 4°C. Overnight, Kenley Airfield in Greater London set a new high minimum temperature of 25.8°C.
The level of risk that the UK now faces from extreme heat is unprecedented. However, this is not a one-time occurrence. Forecasters predict that dangerous heat will become much more common in the United States.
It is time for the UK to stop thinking of itself solely as a cold country, where any bout of summer sunshine is celebrated as an opportunity for beach visits and ice cream. We must adapt and do a better job of protecting ourselves, especially those who are most vulnerable to hot weather.Bob Ward
“We hoped we wouldn’t get to this situation,” Met Office climate attribution scientist Nikos Christidis said in a press release on Friday. “Climate change has already influenced the likelihood of temperature extremes in the UK.”
As a result, 40-degree days in the UK are now up to ten times more likely than they would be “under a natural climate unaffected by human influence,” according to Christidis. The current UK record high temperature is 38.7°C, which was set relatively recently in 2019 at the Cambridge Botanic Garden.
This kind of heat is increasingly endangering people’s lives. This week, the UK Health Security Agency issued its highest heat health alert, warning that “illness and death may occur among the fit and healthy, not just in high-risk groups.”
The post-event report from the Met Office shows that the record-breaking temperatures seen as part of the heatwave demonstrate much more widespread and significant heat than previous noteworthy extreme heat events.
France, Spain, and Portugal are grappling with extreme heat this week, too — which is fueling raging wildfires in parts of Europe. But a typically cooler region like the UK might have even more to do to adapt to a different kind of climate.
Officials began warning people last week to prepare for the heat. “It can be difficult for people to make the best decisions in these situations because nothing in their life experience has led them to know what to expect,” Met Office CEO Penny Endersby said in a recorded video message. “In the UK, we’re used to seeing a hot spell as an opportunity to go outside and play in the sun.” This isn’t the kind of weather. Our lifestyles and infrastructure are not prepared for what is to come.”
The weather in London at this time of year has historically averaged high temperatures of 23 degrees Celsius (74 degrees Fahrenheit). This helps to explain why it is estimated that less than 5% of homes in England have air conditioning.
“It is time for the UK to stop thinking of itself solely as a cold country, where any bout of summer sunshine is celebrated as an opportunity for beach visits and ice cream,” Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, told The Guardian. “We must adapt and do a better job of protecting ourselves, especially those who are most vulnerable to hot weather.”
While temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius were previously unheard of in the UK, the Met Office is already warning of even higher temperatures to come. A summer season with more than one day exceeding 40 degrees Celsius is still unusual in the UK, occurring once every 100 to 300 years, according to the Met Office. However, by 2100 — likely within the lifetime of many children today — a summer this hot could occur every 15 years.