UK heatwave brings record temperature of 40C

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LONDON – Has it ever in human history been so hot in the British Isles? Maybe not.

If you want to mark an unnatural, scary and real data point on climate change, it’s here in Britain, right now, which has seen its hottest day on record tuesday. Temperatures in six locations reached 40 degrees Celsius or more, with London Heathrow and St. James Park hitting 40.2 degrees Celsius or 104.3 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s an extreme weather event, an abnormal heat spike, not seen since modern record keeping began a century and a half ago.

And probably not since weather observation got serious here in 1659. And maybe much longer.

Reaching 40°C, for British climatologists, is a kind of unicorn event that had appeared in their models but which, until recently, seemed almost unbelievable and unattainable so soon.

A fire spread to Dagenham, east London, as temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celsius or 104 Fahrenheit on July 19. (Video: Storyful)

Cairo? Karachi? Phoenix? These are world class ovens.

But London? The high-latitude city – with its recorded history dating back to the Romans – had probably never experienced temperatures like Tuesday’s before.

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Surely no Briton living now – or their Britain-based great- or great-great-grandparents – had felt 40C without traveling abroad. Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, Henry VIII? They’ve probably never faced a 40C day in the British Isles.

This nation was not built to withstand such heat. Its homes, workplaces, roads, railroads, hospitals and infrastructure were built for a temperate climate – Shakespeare’s “other Eden, half-paradise” – not this hell.

Britain has some of the most comprehensive weather records in the world, recorded via logs, observations and instruments dating back to the Enlightenment, including archived daily records from the 1770s and monthly highs and lows dating back to the 1960s. 1660.

Until Tuesday, the highest official temperature was 38.7°C (101.7°F), recorded at the Cambridge Botanic Garden on July 25, 2019. The Met Office reported that at least 34 observation sites across the country surpassed that previous high on Tuesday.

Almost all of the highest temperatures on record have occurred in recent years.

“We are absolutely confident that we haven’t recorded a 40C day dating back to the mid-1850s,” Mark McCarthy, director of the Met Office’s National Climate Information Center, told The Washington Post. referring to the beginning of the meteorological service instrument. -measured temperature records.

These maps show how excessively hot it is in Europe and the United States

Alexander Farnsworth, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Bristol, was ready to travel further back in time. “There is no direct evidence that the UK has exceeded 40C in the past 6,000 years or so,” he told the Post.

This would go back to the middle Holocene.

With caveats, Farnsworth warned.

To dig deeper into prehistory, before instrument data, scientists must rely on proxies that tell them average temperatures over long periods of time – looking at lake and marine sediments, ice cores, corals, glaciation, insects in bogs, tree rings and others, to estimate the past climate.

Over the past 2000 years it has warmed in Britain during the Medieval Warm Period – between 750 and 1350 – but probably not as warm as it was in the late 20th and early 21st century, according to most scientists.

The medieval Domesday Book, completed in 1086 as a kind of census, counted 45 vineyards in Britain, as far north as York – so it was warm enough to grow vines, a tradition brought to the island by the ancients Romans.

Then there was the Little Ice Age, from 1300 to 1850, when the Northern Hemisphere got colder again. This warming and cooling was not caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, as it is today, but by the subtle tilting and oscillation of the planet in front of the sun.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, representing the authoritative consensus of global scientists, reported in 2021 that overall and on average, the Earth is now warmer than it has been in 125,000 years.

Some experts in paleoclimate studies say it’s possible that to get past Britain’s 21st century heat, you’d have to go back to the climatic optimum of the Miocene, around 15 million years ago, when the world was quite different from what it is today. At the time, the continents were jostling. There were different seas and mountain ranges. There were mammals but no humans.

Myles Allen, professor of geosciences at Oxford University, suggested caution. He said it was clear that from the 1850s there had never been a day with 40C. But the further back in time you go, the blurrier the image can be.

One remarkable thing, Allen said, is how accurate climate models have become — both for predicting the future and for looking back in time.

Met Office researchers have reported that in the ‘natural climate’ of the pre-industrial world, there could be a day every 7,000 years when Britain could face 40C.

Today, the probability is once every 100 to 300 years – and growing. According to modelsa 40C day could occur once every 15 years by 2100 if countries meet their carbon emissions promises – or once every three or four years if they continue to emit as much pollution as ‘today.

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Simon Lee, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University who was born and raised in North Yorkshire, England, wrote on his blog that the idea of ​​40C was a “seemingly unthinkable temperature for a country with an aging population that lacks widespread residential air conditioning”.

But “everything changed” on June 30, he wrote, with the release of a Global Ensemble Forecast System model dotted with 40C in southeast England. “Given the UK’s hottest days had only seen 38C exceeded very locally, this was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.” Scientists were initially skeptical. No more.

Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, told the Post: “We thought the models were wrong”, but today we are “sitting in the middle of a changing climate”.

“It’s unprecedented,” she said, this kind of forecast, “where we could see and feel something that we’ve never experienced here before.”

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