U.K.: Regular heatwaves 'will kill thousands'

Roger Harrabin BBC 26 Jul 18;

The current heatwave could become the new normal for UK summers by 2040 because of climate change, MPs warn.

The Environmental Audit Committee warns of 7,000 heat-related deaths every year in the UK by 2050 if the government doesn't act quickly.

Higher temperatures put some people at increased risk of dying from cardiac, kidney and respiratory diseases.

The MPs say ministers must act to protect people - especially with an ageing population in the UK.

Isn't the heatwave natural?

Scientists differ on whether the current global rash of heatwaves is definitely caused by climate change.

But all agree that future heatwaves will be hotter and more frequent thanks to carbon emissions.

The MPs point to a warning from the Met Office that UK summer temperatures could regularly reach 38.5C by the 2040s.

How can people be protected?

The government says it is committed to cutting carbon emissions, although it is not on track to meet its targets.

But the MPs say ministers should be much smarter about heat-proofing the UK.

They say the government's current plans will not stop buildings overheating.

They want tougher rules to ensure that homes and transport networks can deal with extreme heat.

They also say local councils should plant trees and keep green spaces to provide cool air.

What about the NHS?

The usual number of consultations for heat-related illness doubled during the 2013 heatwave, the report says.

And the MPs want hospitals and care homes inspected to check they can cope with scorching heat.

"The ability of nursing homes to cope with the serious health impact of heatwaves on older people is not assessed," the report says.

This is worrying given that in the 2003 heatwave, excess deaths in nursing homes in some parts of the UK rose by 42%.

Mary Creagh, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee said: "Heatwaves threaten health, wellbeing and productivity.

"The government must stop playing pass-the-parcel with local councils and the NHS, and develop a strategy to protect our ageing population from this increasing risk."

Which homes are most at risk from heat?

In a densely populated city, temperatures will be higher.

Homes built in the 1960s and 1970s can present a particular risk - so can flats with windows that are small, hard to open or all face the same way.

The committee complains that there is no regulation to prevent overheating in buildings.

It wants the government to stop supporting the building of modular homes, which are factory-made then bolted together on site. They are not resilient to hot weather, it says.

Meanwhile, the Committee on Climate Change wants shading structures introduced on buildings.

Will there be a problem with transport?

The report says only 50% of the UK's motorways and major roads are surfaced with material that can withstand the kind of summer temperatures the country is beginning to experience regularly.

During the peak of the June heatwave, railway tracks buckled - causing cancellations and delays.

How should offices and schools adapt?

High heat reduces productivity. Workers arriving sweating to the office take time before they're ready to do the job. People working outside find themselves doing less and needing more breaks.

The committee says Public Health England should tell employers to relax dress codes and allow flexible working in heatwaves.

The government should also consider introducing maximum workplace temperatures, especially for physical work.

In schools, head teachers should be advised about safe temperatures in the classroom. And they should relax school uniform policy during hot weather.

A recent study suggested that wealthy private schools that could afford air conditioning would increase the relative exam success of their pupils during summer heat.

Should we fear the heat island?

Cities can be up to 10C hotter than the surrounding countryside because hard surfaces absorb heat during the day and give out heat at night. This is the heat island effect.

If people get too hot in bed, it prevents them recovering from the previous day's heat. The MPs say that in the 2003 heatwave, excess deaths in London increased by 42%.

Yet the government's planning framework makes no mention of the heat island effect.

What's more, ministers withdrew funding for local authority climate change adaptation officers, who were trying to tackle the issue.

The report says the government should introduce an urban green infrastructure target - and ensure towns and cities are adapted to more frequent heatwaves.

What about water supplies in heatwaves?

The committee wants new homes to have to use water more efficiently. There have been consistent demands for the water companies to store more water - especially in the dry South East - and to plug leaks.

Kathryn Brown, head of adaptation at the Committee on Climate Change, said: "Water shortages are a concern - we can expect greater water deficits across the country, including in cooler wetter areas like the north-west of England.

"The area of land well suited to the production of water-intensive crops, such as rain-fed potatoes, could decline by over 80% by the 2050s."

Will we get out-of-season heatwaves?

The committee says the government's heatwave alert system runs only from June to September, so vulnerable people will not be warned about unseasonal heatwaves.

The MPs heard that alerts are put out only if approximately 30°C is reached - even though the medical director at Public Health England said heat-related deaths began at upwards of 25°C.

When was this report commissioned?

The inquiry began just after Christmas.

What about cold weather?

In the UK, many more preventable deaths happen because of cold weather than hot weather - but the government has failed to deliver its targets for insulating homes.

If the UK's winters get warmer, as generally predicted, winter deaths will be reduced. But in a year like this one, the UK has suffered extremes of cold and heat.

Both heat-related and cold-related health burdens in future will be amplified by population ageing.

How will heatwaves affect poor countries?

Charities will point out that the UK's challenges from future heatwaves will be dwarfed by the consequences in poor nations, which haven't caused the climate problem.

A study by Prof Richard Tol, at the University of Sussex, suggests that poorer countries are likely to see their economic growth slowed because they depend on agriculture and outdoor work.

His study says nations with hot climates will need economies three times larger than cooler countries if they are to withstand significant temperature rises.

He said: "[This] raises concerns over the inequality of future climate impacts, and [raises] calls for policymakers to consider poverty reduction as a crucial element of climate policy."

What does the government say?

An official told BBC News; "We are taking robust action to ensure our country is resilient and prepared for the challenges a changing climate brings.

"We will continue to support vulnerable people across society by issuing public health alerts during spells of hot weather, providing advice to schools, and taking steps to tackle overheating risks in new homes.

"Our long-term plan for climate change adaptation sets out ongoing work and investment to make sure food and water supplies are protected, businesses and communities are properly prepared and the right infrastructure is in place

"The government will carefully consider each of the report's recommendations."

How does the 2018 heatwave compare to that of 1976?
David Shukman BBC 25 Jul 18;

Comparisons are being drawn between the heatwave of 2018 and the summer of 1976. So how do the two years measure up?

I had to sit my A-level exams back then, when the temperatures were so punishing we couldn't sleep.

We first tried the cellar, which was cool but too claustrophobic, and then the garden, which was too exposed to the unwelcome light of dawn.

I didn't realise it at the time but I was living through a heatwave that has gone down as one of the seminal events in British weather history.

Mark McCarthy, of the Met Office, says: "'76 is the yardstick we always fall back on because it was such a remarkable heatwave and drought - it's one of the standouts in our records."

It was so serious that the government of the day introduced a Drought Act and even appointed a Minister for Drought, Denis Howell, whose job was to encourage the public to use less water.

The newspapers loved it when he told them he had taken to sharing baths with his wife.

So how does 1976 stack up against the extreme conditions large parts of the UK are now experiencing week after week?

There are some striking similarities but also some key differences.

Beyond the horizon, the surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean play a crucial role in determining our weather - and sea conditions back then were very like what we're seeing now.

In both years, a particular pattern formed in which there is cool water near Greenland, warm water further south and then more cool water closer to the British Isles - and research has shown how that pattern of sea temperatures can be linked to warmer drier summers in the UK.

And both heatwaves have involved the same kind of lingering high pressure in which temperatures can soar.

But in 1976 the high pressure system was centred further to the east of the UK than now.

That had the effect of drawing up hot humid air from the south, making night-time temperatures even hotter than they have been this year.

The exact location of systems such as this really matters because the UK is relatively small - so a shift one way or the other can have a big effect.

So what about the actual heat?

This is no comfort to anyone toiling outdoors now but 1976 was in a different league to this year. It saw an extraordinary 18 days running when somewhere in the UK had temperatures above 30C.

The latest figures for 2018 show that, so far, we've had "only" nine days on the trot above 30C. Also, 1976 had a staggering 15 consecutive days in which temperatures topped 32C.

But the biggest difference is in rainfall and what that means for water supplies.

From as far back as May 1975, parts of the UK had suffered a long dry spell - so when the heatwave struck, the country was already thirsty.

In Yorkshire and East Anglia, standpipes were fitted in the streets. In Wales and the west of England, supplies were turned off during the day. And dozens of companies had restrictions imposed or were told to order shorter working weeks.

What about this year? It has seen the driest first half of a summer for half a century and a hosepipe ban is in prospect for north-west England. Six of the Met Office's rain gauges have received less than 1mm of rain since 29 May.

Also this year, some regions have not reached even 10% of the average rain seen in June and July - although with seven days of the month left, this could change.

But overall most water companies say they are happy with supplies, for the moment.

Luckily last winter delivered its usual amount of rain and spring rainfall was above average. Much of the country had water in the bank when all this began.

So where does that leave us?

While 1976 did see more severe conditions than now, there has been a profoundly important change in the intervening 42 years: the global average temperature has crept up and is set to rise further.

That makes it "very likely" (in the words of the UN climate science panel) that heatwaves will become more frequent in future. And this has potentially devastating implications.

After the 2003 heatwave that was blamed for causing 2,000 extra deaths in the UK and tens of thousands across continental Europe, a study concluded that the temperatures of 2003 would seem normal by the summers of the 2040s.

Global warming is not the only change. Since 1976, the population has soared, demand for water has rocketed and the stuff has never been so precious.

The water companies are under pressure to fix wasteful leaks. And the rollout of water meters is designed to reduce demand - our supplies used to flow without any record of how much we used. Water saving devices in the home also help us to consume less.

Even in East Anglia, the driest region of the country, where there's less rain per person than in Jerusalem, Anglian Water has managed things so that water demand per head is lower than the UK average. Technology and awareness are combining to provide solutions.

What now? The current heatwave isn't over yet. It could endure through August. More records could be set - or, as often happens during times of maximum public interest, the heavens will suddenly open and the air will cool.

In the case of the minister for drought, his appointment was inevitably followed by a deluge and he was quickly made minister for floods instead (two years later Mr Howell served as minister for snow). The papers loved that too - another reason that 1976 was so memorable.

Sadly, the break in the weather came too late for me and my exams. But when it came to the results, at least I had an excuse.