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The UK’s blistering heatwave is just the beginning

The UK will have to adapt to more extreme heatwaves like this one

Summer in London
18 July 2022, Great Britain, London: The sun rises over skyscrapers.
Photo by Sebastian Gollnow / picture alliance via Getty Images

For the first time on record, parts of the UK are sweltering in temperatures that could soon reach 40 degrees Celsius (that’s over 104 degrees Fahrenheit for American readers). It’s the first time those temperatures have ever been forecast in the UK, according to the Met Office, which also issued its first-ever “Red Extreme” heat warning for parts of England. The warning kicked in today and lasts through tomorrow.

The level of risk the UK now faces from extreme heat is unprecedented. But this isn’t a one-off event. The nation is going to have to brace for dangerous heat much more often, forecasters warn.

“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 as much as 10 times more likely than they would be “under a natural climate unaffected by human influence,” according to Christidis. The current record high temperature in the UK is 38.7°C, which was recorded relatively recently in 2019 at the Cambridge Botanic Garden.

This kind of heat is increasingly putting peoples’ lives at risk. The UK Health Security Agency issued its highest alert for heat health this week, warning that “illness and death may occur among the fit and healthy, and not just in high-risk groups.”

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.

Last week, officials started warning people 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,” Penny Endersby, chief executive of the Met Office, said in a recorded video message. “Here in the UK, we’re used to treating a hot spell as a chance to go and play in the sun. This is not that sort of weather. Our lifestyles and our infrastructure are not adapted to what is coming.”

The weather in London around this time of year has historically averaged high temperatures at a balmy 23 degrees Celsius (74 degrees Fahrenheit). That helps explain why it’s estimated that less than 5 percent of homes in England have air conditioning.

“It is time for the UK to stop thinking of itself only as a cold country, where any bout of summer sunshine is celebrated as an opportunity for beach visits and ice creams,” Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said to The Guardian. “We must adapt and do a better job of protecting ourselves, particularly those who are most vulnerable to hot weather.”

While 40-degree weather has been unheard of in the UK until now, the Met Office is already warning about even higher temperatures to come. A summer season with more than one day that rises above 40 degrees Celsius is still a rarity in the UK — something that typically only happens every 100 to 300 years now, according to the Met Office. But by 2100 — likely within the lifetime of many children today — a summer that scorching hot could come around every 15 years.