A new age of extreme weather: the dangerous consequences of Britain’s heatwave

June saw 16 consecutive days of temperatures above 28°C. But joyous as it may seem, this unusually hot summer is no cause for celebration.

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After enduring one of its coldest springs in decades, the UK is now experiencing an unusually balmy summer. The country’s hottest May on record was followed in June by 16 consecutive days of temperatures above 28°C. Scotland recorded its warmest-ever day (33.2°C). A Brexit-torn Britain suddenly feels united by a shared love of the Mediterranean-style sunshine. Even archaeologists are cheered, as outlines of ancient hill forts are exposed by the bleached grass.

The heatwave is the result of an extended period of high pressure over the UK. In recent weeks, sinking air has suppressed the development of cloud and blocked cooler air from the Atlantic. This creates what Grahame Madge from the Met Office describes as “home-grown heat”, as opposed to a circulation pattern bringing hot air in from Europe.

With no apparent need to rely on “the continent” for our sunshine, some might rejoice. But such parochial thinking is dangerous when seeking to understand climate change.

The world has experienced an average temperature rise of around 1°C since pre-industrial times, and could exceed the 2015 Paris Agreement’s maximum target of 1.5°C within the next five years.

Owing to this rising background heat, Britain’s latest hot spell reflects a likely rise in extreme weather of all kinds. Africa may have endured its hottest temperature ever on 5 July (51.3°C in the Algerian Sahara Desert). Canada and Siberia have recently been afflicted by heatwaves, while in Japan, heavy rain has killed more than 100 people.

Britain’s high pressure is the result of a prolonged kink in the wider jet stream. This long ribbon of high-altitude wind, wrapped around the globe’s northern hemisphere, is growing more volatile for longer periods as conditions in the Arctic become less stable. When the boundaries between cold air to the north and warm air to the south start to loop, they throw the UK’s average temperatures out of sync.

Some, unsurprisingly, are drawn to visions of apocalypse. “Fire and Fury” declared the front page of the Farmers Guardian on 6 July as the Saddleworth Moor wildfire appeared to lick the edges of an orange Harvest Moon. 

Yet there are opportunities amid the coming chaos – for better and for worse. Russia has already launched a floating nuclear plant that will help power its future development of thawed-out Arctic territory (a project Greenpeace has described as “Chernobyl on ice”). In Singapore, meanwhile, there are plans for skyscrapers covered with treetop cocoons. In London, there is talk of repurposing the city’s underground rivers to fuel new community heating.

But the British government appears to be doing little either to reduce carbon emissions or to improve resilience. The UK is currently set to miss its legal target to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050 (from 1990 levels). Brexit has created huge uncertainty over green regulations, and the Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s promises have amounted to little (plans for a strengthened environmental watchdog were undermined by the Treasury).

Meanwhile, between 2016 and 2017, NHS data showed that there were nearly 3,000 instances of overheating in hospital buildings. “The risk of increased deaths during heatwaves shows the urgency of tackling climate change,” Labour MP Mary Creagh, the chair of the environmental audit committee, told me. “Ministers must use every tool to protect people during heatwaves – particularly the elderly living alone.”

The cautious approach of the Met Office may not be helping. When I asked Grahame Madge about the recent heatwave, he replied that “we have to remember the climate is infinitely variable” and pointed to similar hot spells in 2013 and 2006.

Comparisons such as these provide important scientific background, but without further context they risk diminishing the scale of the crisis. Government research found that only 11 per cent of people believed average temperatures had increased over the last 20 years. History (and overheated hedgehogs) will not thank us for down-playing the challenge. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce