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expert reaction to heatwave in UK and Red extreme heat warning issued by the Met Office

The Met Office has issued the first ever Red warning for exceptional heat as temperatures of 40°C have been forecast in the UK.


Quotes sent out 19/07/2022:

Prof Len Shaffrey, Professor of Climate Science, University of Reading

“Exceeding the 40C mark in the UK is yet another piece to add to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that the climate is changing. As a climate scientist, the intensity of the heatwave we’re experiencing is shocking, but it isn’t surprising. The science is clear that as global temperatures warm due to climate change, heatwaves will become more frequent and more intense.

“We’ve seen over the past few days the impacts of extreme heat on our transport networks, infrastructure, education systems and the National Health Service. Looking forward, we’ll need to face up to the reality that temperatures exceeding 40C will become more frequent. Planning for how we will adapt to more frequent and intense heatwaves in UK should be an urgent priority for the UK government.”


Prof Cameron Hepburn, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.

“From ‘melted’ airport runways to exhausted front-line staff, the likely economic impacts of this week’s extreme heat are staggering. Some people say the cost of transitioning from fossil fuels will be too high but the opposite is true – the true cost of inaction on climate change is both economically and socially untenable. On the other hand, we know that investing in green energy like wind and solar leads to more jobs, cheaper energy costs and limits the risks of impacts like extreme weather.”


Prof Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor, University of Oxford, said:

“I have some sympathy with people who shrug their shoulders and say “we’ve always had heatwaves”. Indeed, focussing on the 40 degree record being broken at Heathrow is rather missing the point. As the climate naysayers correctly comment, we can surely cope with 40 degree heat, since much of the rest of the world does. What we as a global community cannot cope with is a deadly combination of high temperatures and high humidities where the human body cannot lose heat. That’s the big story – the Hell of Earth that may be awaiting us, caused by human-induced climate change. Heathrow’s 40 degree temperature is just a small sign of the path that we may now be on, to a world where these deadly events become commonplace in many parts of the subtropics and tropics. We in the UK will feel the effects of these deadly heatwaves only indirectly, from the inevitable tide of humanity migrating polewards trying to find some sort of relief.”


Prof Hannah Cloke, natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, said:

“The all-time temperature record for the UK has not just been broken, it has been absolutely obliterated. The mark of 39 degrees Celsius will never even exist as a UK temperature record, because we have just soared past it into the 40s in a single sweaty leap.

“This is not unusual, as we saw last year in North America when record temperatures exceeded previous highest levels of heat by five degrees in some locations. We know from our understanding of how the atmosphere interacts with the land and vegetation that once heat begins to build up in conditions such as those we are experiencing, it can build and build in a vicious cycle of heating. Add to that a plume of hot air exported from the Sahara, and a background warming of the planet due to greenhouse gases building up, and you’ve got all the conditions for record-breaking UK temperatures.

“This heatwave also shows how well this event has been forecast, well in advance of it happening. The first chance of a 40-degree event in the UK for this week was forecast way back at the start of the month, on July 2. The forecasts then got increasingly more certain that a record-breaking heatwave was on its way. This shows that weather computer models are doing a good job at simulating actual physical conditions, and don’t just rely on what has happened in the past to predict the future. This gives us increasing confidence that computer simulations are capable of seeing unprecedented conditions develop in the future, across a range of timescales. Forecasts are never perfect, but they are getting better and better.

“While the forecasts were good, and heat warnings were commendably issued several days in advance, giving people time to prepare, we need to improve the way we communicate these risks. Britain is just not used to responding to these kind of conditions. Our whole way of life, our towns and cities and our infrastructure are all based on a very different kind of climate. We need to factor in how people respond to warnings, and change how we prepare for heat all year round, because this is going to become more and more common in the future.”


Dr Sam Fankhauser, Professor of Climate Economics at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford:

“Record-breaking energy bills are replaced in the headlines by record-breaking heat. It is a stark reminder of the risks of climate change and the urgent need to decrease global carbon emissions. We cannot solve one problem by aggravating the other. Any new fossil fuel investment should be seen as ‘borrowing emissions from the future’ – and increasing the risks of extreme weather like we are seeing today. Instead, we must seize this opportunity to further invest in clean energy, greenhouse gas removal and reforming energy sector policy and fiscal strategy.”


Julie Godefroy, Head of Sustainability at the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, said:

“The current heatwave is a stark illustration that climate change is already happening: as well as cutting carbon emissions, we need to adapt our buildings and infrastructure for current and future impacts. Government took a positive step this year by requiring that new homes and residential buildings such as care homes should be designed and built to limit overheating risk. Government now needs to give the same attention to other buildings including, crucially, existing homes, to protect the majority of the population. Measures can include avoiding large areas of glass exposed to the sun, installing shading such as shutters, and providing windows which allow good air flow through the home. Such works are also an opportunity for other improvements to the home, such as installing insulation and upgrading heating systems to consume less energy and emit less carbon – all of this can offer benefits to residents in reducing energy bills and improving air quality as well as winter and summer comfort.”


Dr Radhika Khosla, Associate Professor, Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, University of Oxford:

“The UK’s all time heat record has just been broken – and this is not an anomaly but the new normal.

An extra 475 million exposures to heatwaves (that is, one person experiencing three days or more of extreme heat) were observed globally in 2019 compared with 1986-2005. Clearly, that number is only increasing. The level of heat the U.K. is now experiencing is dangerous: it puts strain on our infrastructure, economy, food and education systems, and especially on our bodies. Young and old are particularly at risk to heat-related morbidity and mortality.

Today’s heatwave comes at a time of political upheaval. Britain’s next leader must understand that urgent climate adaptation is required alongside an unwavering commitment to operationalising net zero targets. Immediate heat resilience actions would include heat-health action plans coordinated across government departments and implemented with clear communication strategies; real time surveillance with local and national evaluation; ensuring that the existing and new built environment is equipped to protect against extreme heat; introducing natural cooling solutions to urban built environments such as increasing use of tree cover, water bodies, and reflective surfaces mitigate heat exposure in cities, and promoting cooling behavioural strategies such as adapting dress codes, times of outdoor exposure, and providing drinking water.”


Dr Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science, Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London, said:

“40C at Heathrow, would have been extremely unlikely or virtually impossible without human caused climate change. It’s now an event that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. While still rare, 40C is now a reality of British summers. Whether it will become a very common occurrence or remains relatively infrequent is in our hands and is determined by when and at what global mean temperature we reach net zero.

“It is also in our hands whether every future heatwave will continue to be extremely deadly and disruptive. We have the agency to make us less vulnerable and redesign our cities, homes, schools and hospitals and educate us on how to keep safe. 40C in the UK is not an act of god, but to a large degree due to our past and present burning of fossil fuels.  But it is also in our agency what the future will look like.”


Prof Dann Mitchell, Professor of Climate Science and Met Office Joint Chair in Climate Hazards, University of Bristol, said:

“Even in our current climate a record breaker of above 40C is thought to be extremely rare, but as our climate warms we expect to see these kinds of exceedances every couple of years.”

“Warm nights are associated with distinct physical and mental health burdens, and this is mainly related to our body not being able to recover, which is one of the primary functions of sleep. The increased heat stress put on our bodies during tropical nights leads to greater risk of heat-related illnesses, such as heatstroke and cardiovascular failure. We also know that lack of sleep is strongly linked with our mental state, so issues such as anxiety and depression are lightly to be impacted, especially if multiple nights in a row are very hot.

“But there is also a longer term problem. There is a known link between poor sleep patterns, and dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. A single tropical night will not impact this, but decades worth of them will, and we are expecting to see many more extremely hot nights in the future, due to the increased background temperatures caused by human induced climate change. We must therefore think about ‘the now’ of heatwaves, but also the longer term effects they can have.”


Prof Nigel Arnell, Professor of Climate System Science at the University of Reading, said:

“Today’s temperature is clearly unprecedented, and we’ve seen disruption due to extreme temperatures way above what we have experienced before. The disruption has only lasted a couple of days (so far), but it’s going to get worse over the next few years – similar events in the future will last longer and cover larger areas.

“In the short term, we need to learn lessons from what has happened to our infrastructure and in our buildings, and urgently update our emergency plans and responses as appropriate ready for next year. But we also need to start now planning to upgrade our infrastructure and buildings to cope with changing conditions, so that over the next few years we become more resilient. We have the structures to allow us to do this through the National Adaptation Programme, but this will need commitment from government and regulators – and also funding.”


Prof Terence Wilkins, FREng, Emeritus Professor of Nanomanufacturing Innovation at the University of Leeds, said:

“Tarmac consists of sand, ground stone, carbon (soot) and high molecular weight hydrocarbon thermoplastic polymers with a range of chain lengths which have set solid into a glass like structure.

“As the temperature of tarmac surfaces on roads and runways increases, the polymers vibrate and loosen. At around 50C the entangled hydrocarbon polymers begin to separate and the hydrocarbon solid begins to soften.  This is known as the ‘glass transition point’.  As the temperature increases above 50C the hydrocarbon polymer melts and flows readily and the composite Tarmac loses all its strength and becomes unstable and cannot support traffic.”


Quotes sent out 18/07/2022:

Dr Simon Cork, Senior Lecturer in Physiology at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“The body’s main way of cooling down is through sweating. Sweat on the skin uses the body’s own heat to evaporate it, taking the heat with it and consequently cooling the body. When temperatures reach as high as forecasted this week two things happen which can have damaging consequences.

“When the ambient temperature is greater than skin temperature, sweat is evaporated by heat from the air, not by the body. Therefore sweating is not as efficient at cooling you down. Body temperature has to be kept at around 37.5C otherwise the processes that keep you alive stop working.

“As body temperature rises, sweating increases. The water and salts that are in sweat are derived mainly from our circulating blood. So if we sweat a lot, that means we drain fluid from our circulatory system. This can cause blood pressure to fall dangerously low if hydration is not maintained. In the most extreme circumstances, low blood pressure means our organs cannot be adequately perfused with blood and therefore start to fail.”


Prof Ilan Kelman, Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, said:

“The extent of the heat in southern Europe and England would be extremely unlikely without human-caused climate change. We have been warned for decades of this lethal consequence. Since air conditioning cannot be available for everyone, the only way now to avoid this level of heat is to stop warming the planet. Over the next few days, people must take it easy, drink plenty of water, stay out of the sun, and be ready for more. Not everyone has these options, with hundreds of excess deaths in Spain and Portugal already.”


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.”


Quotes sent out 15/07/2022:

Prof Hannah Cloke, 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.”


Prof 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.”



Declared interests

Prof Ilan Kelman: “No interests to declare.”

Prof Nigel Arnell: “no conflicts of interest.”

Prof Hannah Cloke is a natural hazards researcher & climate expert. Her research is funded by UKRI NERC, UKRI EPSRC, FCDO & the European Commission. She is a member of UKRI NERC council and a fellow of ECMWF. She advises the Environment Agency and DEFRA on environmental hazards.

For all other experts, no reply to our request for DOIs was received.

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