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UK Issues First Ever Red Extreme Heat Alert, Warns of Death Among Fit and Healthy

London city skyline against a blazing red sun
Temperatures could hit 40 degrees Celsius in London next week.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

What's happening

Temperatures in the UK are predicted to hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) next week for the first time on record.

Why it matters

There is a risk of heat-related illness and death even among "the fit and healthy," said the Met Office. The brutal heat wave is an example of how human-induced climate change is making seasonal weather events more extreme around the globe.

The UK is known for many things: fish and chips, the royal family, sarcasm and obsessive talk about the weather in spite of a famously mild and often dreary climate. On Friday, the country's weather service, the Met Office, really gave Brits something to talk about when it issued its first ever "Red Extreme" heat warning, with temperatures next week predicted to hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of the country -- something that's never before happened, according to current records.

With such high temperatures rarely seen in UK summers, the country is ill equipped to deal with the impacts of extreme heat and has issued a level 4 heat health alert warning, constituting a national emergency. Most homes in the country do not have air conditioning, and people have been warned to be on the lookout for heat-related illness affecting themselves and others, especially the elderly, the young and those with underlying health conditions. "At this level, illness and death may occur among the fit and healthy, and not just in high-risk groups," the Met Office warned.

The ongoing heat wave affecting the UK and Europe has already seen temperatures well over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of the country this week. Next week's temperatures are due to peak on Monday and Tuesday, before returning to below 30 degrees on Wednesday.

"Currently there is a 50% chance we could see temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius and 80% we will see a new maximum temperature reached," said Met Office Chief Meteorologist Paul Gundersen in a statement. The high temperature record in the UK is 38.7 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit), which was recorded in Cambridge in July 2019.

Is the climate crisis to blame?

Just as with the historic heat wave that descended on the Pacific Northwest in the US and western Canada last June, the heat wave affecting the UK and Europe can be linked to the climate crisis. It follows devastating heat waves across Asia this spring, which saw temperatures to spike to above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in Pakistan. Such events are already killing and displacing thousands of people across the globe with increasing regularity.

"The dangerous temperatures we're going to see would have been almost impossible without human-caused climate change," said Ben Clarke, an environmental scientist at the University of Oxford, over email. "In that alternative world, it would still be hot over the next few days, but it would be significantly cooler." 

Last year's IPCC report was unequivocal in stating that heat waves are occurring more frequently and are hotter than they would have been in the past due to human-induced climate change. It also warned that if we reach a 2 degree Celsius increase in global warming, heat waves will be even more frequent and extreme.

"In a recent study we found that the likelihood of extremely hot days in the UK has been increasing and will continue to do so during the course of the century, with the most extreme temperatures expected to be observed in the southeast of England," said Met Office Climate Attribution Scientist Nikos Christidis in a statement.

This might the first time that temperatures in the UK have hit 40 degrees Celsius, but Christidis warned that the chances of seeing days with temperatures this high was 10 times more likely in the current climate than it would be in a climate unaffected by human influence. A study by the Met Office found that summers with 40-degree days happen as infrequently as once every 100 to 300 years in the UK at present, but even with current pledges on emissions reductions could be happening every 15 years by 2100.

"Heat waves like this one are still rare, but already far more common than they were several decades ago," said Clarke. "As we continue to burn fossil fuels, we'll see many more days like these, but also records being repeatedly broken as we continue to push back the boundaries of what's possible."