Well known for our cold, wet weather, the UK isn’t somewhere you normally think of when you hear ‘heatwave’. However, this has changed in recent years, as record-breaking temperatures are becoming increasingly common across the country.
In July 2022, the UK recorded it’s hottest day ever, as temperatures passed 40°C for the first time in known history. In fact, the UK has experienced it’s top ten hottest years since 2002, with June 2023 recorded as the hottest on record.
While many of us enjoy a break from the dull weather, this intense change to our climate isn’t all good news. Such high temperatures can be life-threatening, and with predictions that heatwaves may become even more frequent, it’s time we took a closer look at this phenomenon.
In this article, we’ll explore why Britain is experiencing such high temperatures and what’s changed since the early 2000’s? And can we do anything to prevent or prepare for even more heatwaves?
It’s no secret that we Brit’s love a bit of sunshine – it’s usually rare! But since the early 2000’s we’ve experienced more scorching days, and more commonly, we’re hearing the term ‘heatwave’ each summer.
The Met Office (the UK’s weather experts) define a heatwave as a period of at least 3 consecutive days which meet or exceed a given threshold based on location – for example, 25°C. They can last from a few days to a few weeks and are considered an extreme weather event.
As seen below, in the top 10 hottest recorded days, our temperatures have been rapidly rising throughout the summer months, year on year.
Although 2022 still holds the record for the hottest day ever in the UK, 2023 has also proven to be much a warmer year than expected.
In September 2023, a heatwave was declared from the 4th to the 10th, as temperatures exceeded 30°C for seven consecutive days. During this heatwave, the year’s hottest day was recorded on September 9th, reaching 33.2°C at Kew Gardens, London.
What is particularly surprising about this event, is that it occurred much later in the year than experts would have expected, rather than the summer months of July or August.
This wasn’t the only stand-out moment of the year however, as June was recorded as the hottest ever recorded since the 1880’s, with a highest temperature of 32.6°C.
With all these temperature records being broken, it’s clear that things are changing, in a fast and dramatic way.
So, why is this happening? To put it simply, climate change is the cause. Driven by human activity that produces greenhouse gases.
These gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide), are created every time we burn fossil fuels (like gas or oil), to drive our cars or power our homes. Deforestation, farming, waste landfills and pollution are also major contributors.
As greenhouse gases continue to enter Earth’s atmosphere, they trap the sun’s heat, which warms the planet. As time passes, we’re seeing the impact of this excess heat as it starts changing our climates.
For the UK, climate change is experienced in both extremes of hotter, drier summers and much wetter winters. Storms and floods are more frequent due to rising sea levels driven by warmer oceans. Our winters are milder, so we see more rain and less snow.
It’s predicted that by 2070, our winters could be up to 3.8°C warmer and up to 39% wetter than they were in 1990. On the surface, this doesn’t sound so bad. Still, things begin to get more serious when you consider the knock-on effect these weather changes have on our natural environment, animals and plants and ultimately our food supply.
The Met Office predicts that heat waves in the UK are now 30 times more likely to happen due to climate change. Whilst some people hear the term ‘heat wave’ and think about hitting the beach or dusting off the BBQ – there’s a much more serious side to this that we need to consider.
In 2022, the top temperature recorded in the UK was 40.3°C. According to a recent study conducted at the University of Roehampton London, once outside temperatures go beyond 40°C, the human body can start to lose its ability to cool down. This can significantly impact how a person’s body functions and can cause additional stress on those with heart issues, for example.
In the same year, 2022, England recorded the highest number of heat-related deaths ever. More than 4,500 people died due to high temperatures. Heatwaves can directly cause this by increasing the risk of dehydration, heatstroke and heart failure. The elderly and those with health conditions are the most vulnerable.
The risk to life increases in the UK when temperatures rise above 22°C. Considering all of the hottest temperatures in recent years are reaching far above this, it’s clear that we need to be taking heatwaves seriously.
To better prepare for future heatwaves, the UK Health Security Agency created a ‘heatwave plan’, so that you can reduce the risk of severe heat for yourself and others. You can also read our guides to help you keep your home cool and find out when to open windows in hot weather.
As we’ve seen, heatwaves are directly caused by human activities increasing the global temperature. If we want to make any changes to their frequency or intensity, we need to reduce our global impact.
Although this change won’t happen overnight and requires a dedicated global effort, we can make a difference individually. By adopting a more eco-friendly approach to our daily activities, we can live more sustainably and reduce our impact on the environment.
Here are just some things you could do to make a difference:
We all know that weather forecasts are not always accurate. The day you choose not to take your brolly is inevitably the day it rains! But the experts are usually good at predicting the likelihood of big weather events like heatwaves.
According to the Met Office, weather forecasts for heatwaves can be predicted up to a week in advance. However, due to the nature of our constantly shifting atmosphere, forecasts are most accurate the smaller the time frame (i.e. a day or two before), so it’s not possible to know months or years ahead of time.
However, the experts have predicted future weather conditions based on current and historical data. One such prediction states:
By 2070, the chance of exceeding 30°C for two days or more throughout the year increases. Projections show that exceeding 30°C for two days or more over southern parts of the UK becomes sixteen times more frequent than it is today.Met Office
It’s hard to know when exactly our next heatwave might arrive, but with our recent temperature record, it’s safe to bet that future UK weather forecasts won’t be cooling down soon.
The UK’s weather pattern is changing rapidly, and it’s clear to see how climate change affects our temperatures. As our planet warms, we see more frequent and severe heatwaves, and human activities are primarily responsible for this change.
As temperatures rise, the risk to life increases, and it’s crucial that we make efforts now to reduce our environmental impact. By choosing renewable alternatives and avoiding actions that release greenhouse gases, we can help to minimise the threat of increasing global temperatures.
We all enjoy warm summers and a chance to escape the wet weather, but with future predictions showing heatwaves becoming hotter and more frequent, now is the time to make changes. Understanding these issues, taking steps to reduce our impact, and preparing for weather extremes will help us all thrive better.