Extreme heat in the UK
It was a summer of fire and heat.
Since June, we’d been hearing about heatwaves on the continent. In June, parts of Europe had experienced record-breaking temperatures of up to 43°. By mid-July a second heatwave had arrived. On the 14th July Pinhão, Portugal experienced a record temperature of 47.0 °C.
Wildfires accompanied these temperature spikes. In France, the Gironde Fires burnt 20,800 ha, forcing the evacuation of 36,750 people. There were also severe fires in Greece, Italy Lebanon, Malta…. The list of conflagrations was long.
The UK had got away lightly. Cut off from the continent, politically severed by Brexit, there was perhaps an element of complacency over here. Wildfires and extreme temperatures were things that happened in other countries, but not in the UK. In previous years, we’d witnessed the raging fires in Australia and the US with an equal complacency. There was the world, and there was the UK. There was maybe a temptation to think that we were somehow exempt.
Then, on Monday 11th and 12th July a level 4 national emergency was declared by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). According to the Government’s 2004 heatwave plan, a level 4 emergency is when a “heatwave is so severe and/or prolonged that its effects extend outside the health and social care system, such as power or water shortages, and/or where the integrity of health and social care systems is threatened”. A Cobra meeting was announced, which a lame-duck Prime Minister declined to attend. And the MET office issued its first ever red warning over extreme heat.
There were dismissals, of course. Noises were made by one Tory MP, who had been a minister at the climate change department, about “snowflakes” who were “cowards” for contemplating precautions for the heatwave. Some of the tabloids attempted to present the situation in the standard ways, such as people lying on a beach. Being a natural-born “coward,” in the days leading up to the heatwave, I began to keep an eye on the MET office weather reports. The peak days of the heatwave were to be the following Monday and Tuesday.
Monday 18th July
On Monday, I was up well before sunrise, at around half past four in the morning. I had my regular shift at the local Leisure Centre. I live on the ground floor of an annex which looks on to a gravel courtyard. The courtyard affords reasonably good views of the southern portion of the sky. Pretty much every morning, if it’s clear, I wander into the courtyard and look up. Today, the sky was free of clouds and lightening rapidly towards the dawn. The waning gibbous Moon hung in the southwest, having passed her zenith. Then the cat materialised from beneath the beech hedge and shot inside. She was in summer predator mode and had spent the night hunting. The air was cool.
Sunrise on the 18th was at 05:04 AM, so the Sun had technically risen by the time I pulled out of the village at about quarter past. The motion of the car disturbed a parliament of pigeons, crows and magpies loitering on the road. This was a common occurrence: on other mornings I’d disturbed rabbits, hares and even on occasion, a deer. The rest of the journey was without incident.
I do several things at the centre, starting with lifeguarding on a warm poolside. The water is maintained at around 29° celsius and the air temperature is a few degrees above that. So it was warm and stuffy even early that morning, sitting on the highchair overlooking the pool. Our boss had issued instructions limiting the time lifeguards should be on poolside during the really hot periods in the afternoon, and had provided bottled water in the office fridge.
Summer is always very busy at the pool, and with the water features on, poolside becomes a hothouse. Water evaporates off the crowds of swimmers and lots of human bodies in a confined space act to increase heat still further. Fortunately, I just do early morning lifeguarding, my main role being an exercise on prescription coach up in the gym. But the gym, although air-conditioned, can also start to get hot in summer. The building is forty years old and not well insulated.
I taught an aquafit class on poolside at 02:00 PM, when the outside temperature was edging into the high thirties. I was told to keep hydrated, which I did. After the class, I did weights only up in the gym but avoided cardiovascular exercise. I didn’t fancy overheating myself on the treadmill or the bike.
I emerged from the centre around four into hot air. The grass outside was rapidly losing any green after many weeks of little rain. This did not feel like British weather at all, more like temperatures I’d experienced in Egypt or Morocco.
Home: not much to do but shower in blessedly cold water and then sit still. As usual, I was too tired to focus on any prolonged reading, so I glanced down the live feed on the Guardian. The Tories were still embroiled in their leadership contest. What struck me was how irrelevant that contest seemed to the current situation. It was also clear that the candidates were pretty much exclusively talking to the Tory party membership and the party’s corporate sponsors, which includes fossil fuel interests. (The donations of the latter group are all legal under the current party funding system).
The Conservatives’ primary aim seemed to be to further those special interests and no-one else’s. This is a classic example of what Jared Diamond calls “rational bad behaviour” — behaviour that is “good for me, bad for everyone else,” AKA known as selfish behaviour (Diamond, 2006, p. 427). That narrow focus had also blinded them to the very real dangers of the current situation. Or maybe they simply didn’t care.
Diamond’s book is a survey of ancient societies that collapsed for ecological reasons. It’s also an assessment of the lessons those collapsed civilisations might hold for us. One of the key factors of that collapse, Diamond notes, was inflexibility amongst the elite classes. This has been a repeated pattern across history. He notes that even when things are visibly deteriorating, elites tend to be too self-serving to want to make changes that might mitigate or avoid collapse. It was very disturbing to witness an example of this sort of behaviour in real time.
Civil twilight was at 09:52 PM. It was still too warm and close outside. Inside, it was stuffy and after I went to bed I drifted into a light, fitful sleep.
Tuesday 19th July
The Sun hung, a golden disk, over the roofs of the small housing estate opposite our gate. It was about twenty-five minutes or so after sunrise on Wednesday. After a hot, stuffy night, it felt pleasantly cool and fresh outside. According to the MET office forecast, the temperature was a mere 22° celsius. Overhead, the swallows were already up, swooping in an out of the open shed opposite the annex.
Today, I was working from home, but I needed exercise. I’d decided to go for a run on the fen while it was still cool. On the fen it was pleasantly green, but the wheat had turned yellow. The grass on the verges had been baked yellow, with only patches of green, for some time. The water in the dyke, which runs parallel to the road for a portion of its length, was low and covered with a thick brown scum. I ran as far as the pumping station. On the way I heard a yellowhammer and saw several kestrels and a kite. Two hares dashed across a field, and corvids gathered on overhead cables.
Return, and a cool shower was a blessed relief. It was around half past seven. The outside temperature was now about 25° celsius and already pitching upwards. You could follow the accelerating spiking on the weather forecast: at eight it was 27°, at nine 30° and by ten 32°. I had work to do on the laptop, so was confined inside for a good chunk of the rest of the morning. As I worked, I kept an eye on the MET office and also the Guardian live feed.
By midday the temperature was thirty seven degrees celsius. I ate lunch in the doorway, watching the ants crawl on the concrete patio slabs just outside my door. The Sun was a blazing, incandescent eye in a cloudless blue sky. The temperature had crossed the threshold from pleasantly to unpleasantly hot.
After lunch, I did a little more work on my laptop but by mid-afternoon it was becoming too stuffy and close inside to concentrate. I had been forced to close the windows and the doors because every time I opened one, a blast of hot air would plough into the annex rooms. If I needed to venture outside, I had to make sure the door to my bedroom, living room and bathroom were closed, enclosing the vestibule like an airlock before I could open the front door. The relatively cool air inside had become a precious resource, like a small puddle of rapidly evaporating water in a desert. Fortunately, the annex, although old, has thick walls and the downstairs is protected by an uninhabited first floor. This was protecting me from the worst onslaught of the heat. But for how long?
By 2 PM we'd reached forty degrees celsius. The air outside had become like a furnace. Hot, fierce gusts made the effect worse. The Sun beat down upon us without mercy. Waves of brutal heat. My energies were already sapping. All I wanted to do was stay inside and keep still. I felt too unfocussed to read anything, or even watch Netflix. I’d discovered an insidious effect of extreme weather: at first, it seems bearable, but as the hours pass, your energy and will are consumed.
At 03:12 PM, the MET office recorded a breaking temperature of 40.3°C at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. Coningsby is about twenty miles as the crow flies from where we live. The official press release from the MET office was fairly bland, but Prof Peter Stott of the MET office found the temperature “shocking” and “very worrying.” In the same article, Professor Hannah Cloke of Reading University was more blunt: “The all-time temperature record for the UK has not just been broken, it has been absolutely obliterated. Even as a climate scientist who studies this stuff, this is scary.”
Any snowflakes had no doubt by now long evaporated from the blazing hob.
At 03: 14 PM, a major incident was declared in London after a surge in fires. The Guardian reported that “Firefighters described blazes tearing through homes and buildings in London as “absolute hell” with residents evacuated and people taken to hospital.” The Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn tweeted: “This is critical. London Fire is under immense pressure. Please be safe.” He also published a list that recommended avoiding barbecues, not leaving broken bottles or glass on grass and the safe disposal of cigarettes. London’s 999 service experienced up to 400 calls an hour, a significant surge.
At around four PM I had a terrible thought.
What if this was it? What if the temperature was never going down again? I recalled the climax of a nightmarish and prescient episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Midnight Sun.” (1961) The Earth is drifting ever closer to the Sun and it is constant, searing daylight (astronomy was not Rod Serling’s strong point). New York bakes under the bulging, bloated disk of the sun. In an upper floor apartment, two women, neighbours to one another, bear witness to the last hours of human existence.
At twenty minutes to midnight, it is 43° celsius. As the temperature climbs towards 50°, the two women grow weaker. The older woman becomes delusional, dreaming of a cool waterfall, then collapses and dies. As the younger woman watches, the thermometer passes 54° before the bulb explodes. She begins to scream and scream.
I felt like screaming, too.
And what if one day, the temperatures don’t go down? One of the worst, most nightmarish scenarios of climate breakdown is the so-called Venus syndrome. This is when the Earth flips into a runaway greenhouse phase and ends up as hot as Venus. Wikipedia assures us that this is very unlikely, that it would require orders of magnitude more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for this scenario to be realised.
Perhaps. But I’m no longer lulled by this kind of bland reassurance.
By 05:00 PM the temperatures had begun, imperceptibly, to fall. I felt totally exhausted, almost dazed, but still functional. One thing that stuck me was how limiting such heat is, especially if you are living poorly insulated housing (i.e. most UK homes). Suddenly, the demands of the breakaway splinter of Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, made a lot more sense.
Civil twilight was at 09:50 PM, and it was a waiting game as the temperature dropped, painfully slowly. This ride was not really fun any more, I wanted to get off. But I couldn’t. None of us could. In London, the fire continued, and would eventually destroy 41 properties. The London Fire Brigade had had their busiest day since World War II. The fires were also not confined to London: other wildfires started in Dagenham, Dartford Heath, Upminster, Hatfield and Rossington, Sprotbrough, Yorkshire (where homes were destroyed), Upton Heath in Dorset and other places.
At 6PM, it was 38°, at 7PM 37°, 8PM, 33°. The air in my bedroom and living room was close. I didn’t dare open the windows until after eight O’clock. My sleep was light, disturbed.
Wednesday 20th July
The next day — thank God! — was significantly cooler. I went outside, enjoying the luxury of cool air on skin. The garden looked more like early autumn than midsummer: the heat had shocked the trees and leaves were scattered on yellow grass.
Damage was not confined to the plants.
Train services between Peterborough and London had been reduced to a minimum for the day of the heatwave, and for the 20th July also. The lines, overhead power cables and signalling systems had been damaged by the heat. I was supposed to go to London on the evening of the 20th, but was forced to cancel because engineers were still repairing the line. But in some ways, I was grateful. After a day at work, I was tired out. But I also felt a deep need to process recent experiences.
One fact had already impressed itself upon me, uncovered during my initial research for this piece. That we’d known this was coming. We’d known this was coming and had done, effectively, nothing.
Back in 2019, Dr Peter Stott of the MET office warned of the potential for “weather on steroids,” referring to the UK experiencing temperatures above 40 degrees celsius, which he also said would be vanishingly unlikely without human-forced global heating. In 2020, a study confirmed that the likelihood of 40 degree temperatures in the UK was ‘rapidly accelerating.’ That prophecy was fulfilled within two years.
Those two days proved to me, in a very concrete and visceral way, that we were in trouble. Big trouble.
So what next?
Note: I have attempted to fully reference the factual statements above via links. I apologise for any omissions or errors, which will be corrected if necessary.
Diamond, J. (2006). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive. Penguin.