By Ruth Port (she/her)
Everyone knows that this Summer has been especially hot. Whether you’ve been down to the beach, hidden away in the shade or, like a lot of us, been wondering about the reasons and repercussions of such a scorcher, it is hard to deny that the heatwaves seem more extreme this year. This article will explain the reason behind such heatwaves in the UK and look at the facts and effects, before discussing what comes next and the probability of seeing more heatwaves across the country.
What caused the heatwave?
The recent heatwave (16th to 19th July 2022) occurred because of a heat dome – a meteorological phenomenon that occurs when the atmosphere traps hot air in a cap. The UK was trapped between high-pressure over Europe and a low-pressure system to the north west of Scotland which resulted in the hot, dry air from southern Europe travelling to the UK. When an area of high pressure is coupled with falling air in the atmosphere, warm air is trapped at the surface (Met Office, 2022).
What temperatures did we see?
The official MetOffice report for the UK heatwave saw this heat dome affecting the whole of the UK, with most regions setting new records for extreme heat. 35°C was recorded for the first time in Scotland, 37.1°C was the new record for Wales, whilst a high of 37.1°C occurred in Northern Ireland. The highest temperature overall was recorded at the Coningsby weather station in Lincolnshire: on 19th July the temperature was 40.3°C. This was higher than the previous record by 1.6°C.
After the heatwave of 2003, where a high of 38.5°C was recorded in Kent on the 10th of August (Met Office, 2019), the government released an official heatwave plan to help prepare the country and its services for subsequent hot weather events. This has since been updated to include the Extreme Heat National Weather Warning Service in 2021, of which the first red warning for extreme heat was issued. This plan to deal with high temperatures warned that population-wide adverse health effects may be experienced. Ultimately, it culminated in an estimated 1000 people killed by the heatwave, primarily affected the people aged 85 or older (Vaughan, 2022). As well as this, travel was affected as flights were suspended at Luton airport and Network Rail issued a ‘do not travel warning’. Discussions about the weather were on the lips of everyone: the word “heatwave” became a mantra for small talk and a YouGov poll found that the number of people selecting ‘the environment’ as one of the most important issues facing the country right now has increased by 10 points from the week before (Mann, 2022).
What comes next?
A study that used observations of UK temperatures and applied these in a climate model found that heatwaves exceeding 40°C could be taking place every few years in the climate of 2100. With human activity making the event at least 10 times more likely (World Weather Attribution, 2022), the UK faces a continued summer of extreme heat. As greenhouse gases raise the average temperature, it creates a higher baseline so heatwaves are hotter than in the past. Additionally, study by Imperial College London found that the heatwave would’ve been ‘4°C cooler without human-caused climate change’ (Willshire, 2022). A word that was used in the official MetOffice report for the July heatwave was ‘unprecedented’ – the event was one that had never been done before. But with the heatwave that followed in August, will these record-breaking heatwaves continue to be unprecedented, or will they become the norm?
Despite the increased likelihood of extreme temperatures, there is still hope that humanity will be able to limit the release of emissions that contributes to climate change. The Paris climate agreement that aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, if stuck to, will greatly reduce the probability of heatwaves happening in the future. As well as this, one of the main services affected by heatwaves – the NHS – have plans in place to construct 40 new hospitals which will more sustainable and more efficient to cope with increased temperatures, meaning vulnerable people will be safer during these times (Gov.Uk, 2021). Additionally, here are some tips to cope in hot weather, and there will also be links below to helpful pages!
NHS: how to cope in hot weather.
Redcross: top tips for keeping cool.
NHS: heat exhaustion and heat stroke.