Britain shattered its record for highest temperature ever registered on Tuesday as part of a heat wave, which the mayor of London said is causing a “huge surge” in the number of fires in the city.
The UK Met Office registered its first record of 39.1 C in the morning, set in Charlwood, England. The weather agency in the afternoon registered a provisional reading of 40.3 C in Coningsby in eastern England.
Before Tuesday, the highest temperature recorded in Britain was 38.7 C, which was only recently set in 2019. By late Tuesday afternoon, 29 places in the UK had broken that record.
As the nation watched with a combination of horror and fascination, Met Office chief scientist Stephen Belcher said such temperatures in Britain were “virtually impossible” without human-driven climate change.
He warned that “we could see temperatures like this every three years” without serious action on carbon emissions.
Mayor Sadiq Khan said Tuesday the fire service in the capital is under “immense pressure.” The blazes include a grass fire in Wennington on the eastern edge of the city that is being tackled by 100 firefighters.
The London Fire Brigade said it had declared a “major incident,” which means it can call on resources from other emergency services.
The sweltering weather has disrupted travel, health care and schools in a country not prepared for such extremes. Many homes, small businesses and even public buildings, including hospitals, don’t even have air conditioning, a reflection of how unusual such heat is in the country better known for rain and mild temperatures.
Met Office forecaster Rachel Ayers said Tuesday’s highs would be “unprecedented.”
A huge chunk of England, from London in the south to Manchester and Leeds in the north, is under the country’s first warning of “extreme” heat, meaning there is danger of death even for healthy people.
Many train routes not in service
Millions of Britons woke up from the country’s warmest-ever night. The Met Office said provisional figures showed the temperature remained above 25 C overnight in parts of the country for the first time.
Average July temperatures in the UK range from a daily high of 21 C to a nighttime low of 12 C, and few homes or small businesses have air conditioning.
Before Tuesday, the highest temperature recorded in Britain was 38.7 C, a record just set in 2019.
Electric fans cooled the traditional mounted troops of the Household Cavalry as they stood guard in central London in heavy ceremonial uniforms. Other guards reduced their duties. The capital’s Hyde Park, normally busy with walkers, was eerily quiet — except for the long lines to take a dip in the Serpentine lake.
“I’m going to my office because it’s nice and cool,” said geologist Tom Elliott, 31, after taking a swim. “I’m cycling around instead of taking the Tube.”
From Britain’s weather agency, around 3:00 pm local time:
London’s Luton Airport had to close its runway because of heat damage. The airport said Tuesday it was “fully operational,” but cautioned that a number of train routes leading to the city were not in service due to the heat. Trains are running at low speed out of concern for buckled rails, or not at all.
London’s King’s Cross Station, one of the country’s busiest rail hubs, was empty on Tuesday, with no trains on the busy east-coast line connecting the capital to the north and Scotland.
Britain’s Supreme Court closed to visitors after a problem with the air conditioning forced it to move hearings online. The British Museum planned to close early.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain’s transport infrastructure, some of it dating from Victorian times, “just wasn’t built to withstand this type of temperature — and it will be many years before we can replace infrastructure with the kind of infrastructure that could.”
Deadly consequences in UK, Europe
At least five people were reported to have drowned across the UK in rivers, lakes and reservoirs while trying to cool off.
Climate experts warn that global warming has increased the frequency of extreme weather events, with studies showing that the likelihood of temperatures in the UK reaching 40 C is now 10 times higher than in the pre-industrial era. Drought and heat waves tied to climate change have also made wildfires harder to fight.
The head of the UN weather agency expressed hope that the heat gripping Europe would serve as a “wake-up call” for governments to do more on climate change.
“I hope that also in democratic countries, these kind of events will have an impact on voting behavior,” World Meteorological Organization Secretary General Petteri Taalas told reporters on Tuesday in Geneva.
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Unusually hot, dry weather has gripped large swaths of Europe since last week, triggering wildfires from Portugal to the Balkans and leading to hundreds of heat-related deaths.
In the Gironde region of southwestern France, ferocious wildfires continued to spread through tinder-dry pine forests, frustrating firefighting efforts by more than 2,000 firefighters and water-bombing planes.
More than 37,000 people have been evacuated from homes and summer vacation spots since the fires broke out on July 12 and burned through 190 square kilometers of forests and vegetation, Gironde authorities said.
A smaller third fire broke out late Monday in the Medoc wine region north of Bordeaux, further taxing firefighting resources. Five camping sites went up in flames in the Atlantic coast beach zone where blazes raged around the Arcachon maritime basin famous for its oysters and resorts.
But weather forecasts offered some consolation, with heat-wave temperatures expected to ease along the Atlantic seaboard Tuesday and the possibility of rains rolling in late in the day.