A Predictable Surprise: The UK Heatwave in Context

When the humidity and heat of The Swamp – more globally known as Washington, D.C. – becomes so overwhelming that stepping outside is stepping into a sauna, a drastic option for escape is to travel to other corners of the world that are known for having fresher and cooler climates. This year, that sort of relief has been hard to come by.

If you’re seeking a mild and pleasant summer, the United Kingdom would typically be an ideal choice. Not so in 2018. The heatwave in the UK has been going on since June and is expected to continue through August, with bookies even providing odds on continued record temperature highs. Temperatures have repeatedly exceeded 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). It has been the driest start to the summer since modern records began in 1961. Heatwaves in areas where they are unexpected and the population is unprepared to deal with them can be especially harmful.

The negative impacts in the UK have been widespread. Commutes have been affected, as was evidenced by rail disruptions earlier in the summer in North Yorkshire, when heat buckled a rail. Riding the London underground was likened to baking in a pizza oven, as commuters travel in 35 degree Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures. In addition to negatively impacting people, the effects of the heatwave ripple out to local environments. There has been a call to help local garden birds access sources of fresh water to manage in the heat. Similarly, there has been a direct impact on agriculture related to water shortages, with some farmers taking radical measures to keep livestock alive.

People have been managing the heat in the United Kingdom through various mechanisms. Simply moving from the city to the countryside can reduce the temperature by as much as 10 degrees Celsius; the urban heat island effect means that buildings and roads trap heat inside the city and then emit it back at night. Employers can relax dress codes and be flexible with working hours to help employees avoid excessive heat exposure. By doing so, employers also avoid the productivity losses associated with extreme temperatures.

However, some businesses and industries are getting a boost from the heat. Ice cream sales, quiche consumption, and camping have increased this summer. Tourism, in the form of countryside retreats and resorts, is also expected to benefit from the heat wave.

Although extreme seasons themselves are not evidence for climate change, the increased incidence of extremes, including hotter summer and colder winters, are coherent under the conditions of climate change. The UK already experienced the “colder winter” earlier this year: the arctic experienced multiple days with warmer temperatures than southern England. As some people argue, the 2018 temperature extremes in the United Kingdom are having enough of an impact to place climate change as a top political agenda.

For those still doubting science, the question may be whether this heatwave has been caused by anthropogenic climate change. The answer: probably, yes. While we will never know with 100 percent confidence what a counterfactual would look like, a recent study on the heatwave in northern Europe indicates that without human-induced climate change, the heatwave would have been a few times less likely to occur.

When the most extreme effects of climate change have come to bear, it will be difficult to look back and pinpoint when they started to be felt. Perhaps 2018 will serve as such a year, when temperature increases translated into noticeable and intense consequences. These have included wildfires (not just in California, Spain, and Greece, but also in the arctic circle), crop failures, and heat-related deaths, which particularly affect the elderly. Specific impacts around the globe have been nicely mapped out to show that the effects of climate change are touching everyone.

In hindsight, the news is not surprising; scientists have been predicting these impacts and issuing warnings for decades. Instead of turning away in a feeling of helplessness, the summer of 2018 should be a reminder that although the worst is yet to come, the tools we need to solve this problem already exist. It’s just a matter of using them:


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on August 14, 2018.

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