This week the United Kingdom was the hottest on record.
Parts of England experienced temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday, a first in the country’s recorded history.
The government has recommended that British citizens stay home if possible. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said the city’s fire department got 1,600 calls for help and that firefighters were battling at least a dozen large fires around the city.
Residents of Blidworth, a village near Nottingham, were evacuated while 15 fire departments battled a massive wildfire on a neighbouring farm.
“I wasn’t expecting to see this in my career,” said Stephen Belcher, the chief scientist at the U.K.’s Meteorological Office.
You might be wondering why the extreme heat has been so disruptive in the United Kingdom, given that most nations have their warm spell. Even though hot days are expected to become more frequent due to climate change, officials and scientists claim that the UK and its people are less prepared to handle the heat because it isn’t common there.
Temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit are common in some areas of the United States. For example, a dozen times a year, triple-digit temperatures are typically in the South and Southwest. In contrast, the Met Office estimates that temperatures as high as those observed Tuesday should only be expected once every 100 to 300 years in the U.K.
Because of this, the U.K.’s infrastructure, including homes, businesses, roads, train tracks, and airport tarmacs, isn’t necessarily made to survive the high temperatures.
“It can be difficult for people to make the best decisions in these situations because nothing in their life experience has led them to know what to expect,” Penny Endersby, the chief executive at the Met Office, said ahead of the heat wave.
“Here in the U.K., we’re used to treating hot spells as a chance to go play in the sun. This is not that sort of weather. Our lifestyles and our infrastructure are not adapted to what is coming,” she added.
For instance, the majority of homes in the UK lack air conditioning. Only 5% of homes have any air conditioning, and of those who do, the majority are portable units made for chilling a single room.
The death toll from this week’s heat wave is yet undetermined. Experts also cautioned that thousands of people would die from scorching temperatures. However, the impact on infrastructure was more immediately noticeable. Compared to the United States, the United Kingdom has more vulnerable roads, tarmacs, and rail networks.
In anticipation of the heat, the U.K.’s national rail service issued warnings about delayed trains and completely shut down some routes. On Monday, a runway at a London airport was closed for several hours when the pavement crumbled due to the heat.
Authorities in the east of England had to shut down a motorway for several hours because the heat had caused the concrete beneath the asphalt’s surface to ripple upward.
According to National Highways, the government-owned organisation in charge of managing the nation’s highways, the section of the A14 was formerly paved with concrete, like many older roads in England. Although asphalt has since been laid over it, the concrete underneath could not withstand the heat this week.
According to Larry Kenney, a physiology professor at Penn State, climate change significantly impacts heat waves in terms of their frequency, duration, and severity. The elderly, those with heart conditions, infants, and those with strenuous physical activity in the heat, such as athletes and service members, are particularly at risk.
“Research conducted at the Met Office has demonstrated that it’s virtually impossible for the U.K. to experience 40 degrees C in an undisrupted climate,” said Belcher, Met’s top scientist.
“If we continue under a high emissions scenario, we could see temperatures like this every three years,” he said.