This Heat Is Not Normal

Heatwave weather in the UK isn't an excuse for newspapers to run beach pictures. It's a sign of our rapidly warming planet.

It is, as you or some of your relatives may have felt compelled to declare this week, too hot. Temperatures today and Tuesday are expected to skyrocket towards 41°C in parts of the UK, with the Met Office issuing its first red weather warning for extreme heat. To remark that it is too hot is to participate in a generation-spanning dance that, in the UK, involves a number of flourishes: the puffing of cheeks; the widening and rolling of eyes; the performative fanning of shirt collars. For the people anxiously aware of the implications of this heat, the phrase takes on a more literal tone. Quite simply, perpetual record-breaking heatwaves will ultimately be the death of us all.

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Not that you’d be able to tell from a quick glance at the way many real, grown-up news outlets are reporting the latest extreme weather event, forecast to potentially reach a sweltering 43°C in some parts of Europe. “Best beach to visit during UK heatwave is ‘beautiful’,” the Express purred. “Employees say it's 'TOO HOT to work',” screamed the Mail, presumably a bonus dig at all those entitled snowflakes who expect jobs with liveable working conditions.

Dr Freya Garry, a senior scientist in the UK Climate Resilience team at the Met Office, says extreme temperatures may be happening faster than we realise. “Heatwaves are now more common with climate change, and are becoming a more frequent feature of the hotter drier summers climate change is bringing,” she says.

According to the Met Office, these hot summers are 30 times more likely to occur now than before the industrial revolution because of the higher concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase, summers of similar intensity are projected to become even more frequent, perhaps occurring as regularly as every other year by the 2050s. 

As with most climate disaster, what’s frequently overlooked is the domino effect of public services that get knocked out in their wake. “These hot dry periods have a range of impacts to UK society, from transport disruption as operating temperatures for rail infrastructure are exceeded, to increased heat stress on humans and animals, unfortunately often resulting in higher death rates,” Garry says. 

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“Hot weather is often accompanied by dry spells in summer, and especially when following a drier spring or winter, this can mean that water supply is limited, crop yields reduce and there is increased fire risk. Electricity supplies can also become under threat, with knock-on impacts to many other sectors.”

Perhaps most terrifyingly, by 2100, some parts of the UK are projected to experience 40°C days every three to four years under a high emissions scenario. As Garry bluntly points out: “We need to adapt to cope with increased heat waves and the other hazards and risks we are facing under climate change.”

To which, inevitably, a sea of faces turn a deep shade of IPCC-code red: “We’ve always had heatwaves,” they say, still flushed with rage from seeing a co-worker carrying what they suspect was a vegan sausage roll. “You’re too young to remember the summer of 1976. It’s supposed to be hot at this time of year.” So what’s actually different in 2022?

The UK faces breaking another unwanted record: the all-time high temperature of 38.7°C recorded in 2019. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Chloe Brimicombe, an environmental climate science researcher at Reading University, confirms the Met Office’s assertion: the cause of alarm isn’t so much the mere presence of extreme weather, but the terrifying regularity with which we’re starting to face it. She explains to VICE that the latest heatwave is the result of a blocking high pressure system – typically meaning that weather fronts carrying rain are “blocked”, leading to sustained dry weather – and that climate change is exacerbating these patterns. 

“Basically these compound events – the dry weather and heatwaves – are more likely with climate change, especially in Europe, and that is the case everywhere for this dry heat mix,” Brimicombe says. “What is the key everywhere is that heatwaves are more likely, so they’re more frequent in their occurrence, they’re longer, and they’re more intense – like this one we’re in right now.” 

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It means the UK faces breaking another unwanted record: the all-time high temperature of 38.7°C recorded in 2019. “Which is really scary, because it’s not actually that long ago. To be breaking that record again would be incredible.”

It isn’t just about heatwaves, of course. The summer of 2021 saw disastrous storms and flooding across the world – which, to a lesser degree, will likely follow our heatwave – with pretty much every other variety of end-of-the-world blockbuster weather due to become more frequent over the next century or two, none of which the UK is adequately prepared to combat

The problem with heatwaves, specifically, is they’re on course to be vastly more prolific than any of the others. “You won’t see flooding or storms or droughts everywhere. Everything is increasing, but the difference with heatwaves is that you can – and you will – see them everywhere,” Brimicombe says.

As a climate expert, she’s also dismayed at the UK media’s cutesy, seaside japery approach to heatwave reporting. “We’ve been saying for years now that it’s a deadly hazard. We know that hospital admissions rise, and that it’s a massive health problem in the UK. But you never, ever see reporters in A&E. 

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“I always get asked, ‘What visuals can we use?’ And I say to them, ‘You can go into the community and find people with stories about heat,’ because I’m sure that human story is actually better than me always going on the news and saying ‘heat is deadly’. What’s more powerful than a story of someone who’s actually been affected by this?”

As it turns out, some of us are living in a Goldilocks corner of the planet that still has the luxury – for a relatively infinitesimal window of human existence – of seeing heatwaves prompt more spikes in Calippo sales than urgent reform of environmental legislation. But panicking when outside spaces become largely uninhabitable will be too late. What, if anything, can we do now?

“As a scientist, I would say the best thing people can do is talk about to everybody around them,” Brimicombe says. “Talk about how climate change is happening. If we’re in a heatwave, say, ‘This isn’t normal. This is climate change.’” The rest, she suggests, is down to what political action people feel personally prepared to undertake: lobbying MPs, signing petitions, attending climate science talks and protests.

“Get involved, talk to scientists – we’re happy to answer your questions. It’s about opening up the conversation.” That may mean an awkward conversation with your aunties, co-workers, taxi drivers, the people that form the fabric of your day-to-day life. I know, I know: It’s too hot for all this. But maybe it’s time to start talking about the reason why.

@matthewgneale

Tagged:

weather, heatwave, Extreme weather, heatwaves, met office, climate crisis

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