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Sunday, August 7, 2022

U.K. set for record temperatures as heat wave hits Europe


PARIS — Britain on Monday braced for what could become its hottest day on record, as French authorities warned of a “heat apocalypse” and emergency services across Europe confronted spreading wildfires and rising death tolls.

British authorities have declared a national emergency and for the first time issued a “red extreme” heat warning for large parts of England, while France’s meteorological service placed a stretch of its Atlantic coast under the highest-possible alert level.

Forecasters predicted that a number of heat records could be toppled Monday, with Britain expecting temperatures of up to 106 degrees (41 Celsius) — far above the current record of 101.7 degrees (38.7 Celsius), which was set in 2019. Temperatures in France were expected to top 104 degrees (40 Celsius) and the heat was expected to linger until at least Tuesday.

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Nikos Christidis, a climate attribution researcher at the United Kingdom’s Met Office, said it reflected scientists’ expectation that climate change is making extreme heat events more frequent.

“The chances of seeing 40°C days in the U.K. could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence,” he said in a statement.

Across Europe, the human toll of the continent’s most recent heat wave was becoming increasingly visible Monday. Thousands more people were expected to be evacuated amid rapidly spreading wildfires in Spain, France and Portugal. Authorities warned that the heat was likely to degrade air quality in major urban population centers, and hundreds were feared dead from the high temperatures. Much of Italy’s north, which is facing one of its worst droughts in decades, remained under a state of emergency.

In many parts of France and Spain, firefighting services and hospitals were increasingly strained. France’s Interior Ministry announced it would deploy hundreds of additional firefighters to the most severely hit regions, including the popular beaches and vacation spots on the country’s west coast. In Spain, authorities said in many places, the available firefighting planes were already working at capacity.

“Full solidarity with firefighters and disaster victims,” wrote French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne. Her Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, on Sunday paid tribute to a dead emergency service worker.

Hospital unions in France and other countries warned that the heat is putting an additional burden on services that are already dealing with a renewed rise in coronavirus-linked hospitalizations in recent weeks.

Models by Spain’s public Carlos III Institute estimate that over 350 people died as a result of heat in the country last week — far above the weekly average of about 60 deaths but largely comparable to the toll of similar heat episodes in prior years. Over 800 heat-linked deaths were reported by the institute in June, when similarly scorching temperatures hit the country and other parts of Europe, with temperatures reaching between 104 and 110 degrees (40 to 43 Celsius).

The U.K Health Agency issued its highest level-four heat alert, warning illness and death could occur “among the fit and healthy.” Public health officials predicted that thousands of excess deaths could occur, even as some skeptics considered it hype.

Conservative Party lawmaker John Hayes told the Telegraph newspaper, “this is not a brave new world but a cowardly new world where we live in a country where we are frightened of the heat.”

But Britain isn’t designed for extreme heat.

Very few homes have air conditioning and instead houses have traditionally been built to retain heat.

Maintenance crews were spreading sand on the highways to keep the roads from, yes, melting.

Penny Endersby, the chief operating officer of Britain’s weather service, the Meteorological Office, called the forecast temperatures “absolutely unprecedented.”

She acknowledged that many Britons usually enjoyed a spell of sunny warmth. “This is not that sort of weather,” Endersby said. “Our lifestyles and our infrastructure are not adapted to what is coming.”

In London, workers wrapped the historic Hammersmith Bridge over the River Thames in silver insulation foil to protect the cast-iron spans from cracking in the heat.

Transit officials advised passengers to stay away and ordered trains to slow down as maintenance crews were on the lookout for steel tracks bending and buckling in the heat.

A Network Rail manager, Jake Kelly, told BBC Radio on Monday morning that the system was under “exceptional stress.”

“Our railway is made up of lots of components, many of them metal, which expand in the heat.” Kelly said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned riders to avoid all public transit, including the Underground, “unless absolutely necessary.” The subway becomes a sauna on hot days. The system, parts of which date to the Victorian Age, has never seen the temperatures like those that are forecast.

In France, national railway operator SNCF similarly urged travelers to carry water bottles and to be prepared for delays.

The most recent heat wave has revived a debate over how to prepare citizens for the impact of climate change.

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While environmental concerns over the use of air conditioning remain widespread in Europe, it is increasingly seen as a key tool to protect the most vulnerable groups.

After a heat wave killed an estimated 15,000 people in France in 2003, French nursing homes developed emergency plans. Many of them are now equipped with air-conditioned rooms, additional ventilation, or sprinklers that cool down building facades.

In Paris, city authorities encourage residents and tourists to use a dedicated website to find over 900 “islands of coolness,” which include city parks, cemeteries, swimming pools and museums. The site also points to dedicated “cooling routes” — for example, streets with lush trees — that connect those spaces. Other French cities rely on misting devices.

Studies suggest that such measures have brought down heat-related mortality since 2003. But as climate change progresses, increasingly brutal heat domes that build up in urban areas could pose risks that may be difficult to address with conventional solutions. Many of the elderly residents who died in recent heat waves in France were at home and not in nursing facilities.

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In rural areas, heat waves are expected to have an increasingly serious impact on agricultural production. This year, French farmers faced a mix of frost, a record-hot May accompanied by a spring drought, intense hailstorms that brought heavy rain this year, followed by more drought this summer.

“What we see now is just the very beginning of the potential impact” of climate change, said Christian Huyghe, scientific director at France’s National Institute of Agricultural Research.

Booth reported from London.

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