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U.K. braces for record temperatures as ‘heat apocalypse’ hits Europe

July 18, 2022 Updated Mon., July 18, 2022 at 8:23 p.m.

By Rick Noack and William Booth Washington Post

PARIS – Britain is bracing this week for what could be its hottest day ever recorded, while French authorities warned of a “heat apocalypse” and emergency services across Europe confronted spreading wildfires and rising death tolls.

Heat records toppled in several places on Monday, as Wales reported a new all-time high and Ireland registered its highest air temperature in more than a century. More records could fall as the heat continues into Tuesday, with Britain expecting temperatures of up to 106 degrees – far above the record of 101.7 degrees set in 2019. Temperatures hovered just below 104 degrees in many areas of France on Monday, but are expected to exceed that threshold in Paris and elsewhere on Tuesday.

British authorities 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. Much of Italy’s north, which is facing one of its worst droughts in decades, remained under a state of emergency.

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

“The chances of seeing (104 Fahrenheit) 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.

The human toll and logistical challenges of extreme heat were becoming increasingly visible Monday, with firefighting services under strain, hospitals preparing for increased admissions and transportation, office work and schools disrupted.

In Britain, planes were diverted from at least two airports, amid reports of “melting” runways and roads.

More than 15,000 people were evacuated amid wildfires in France. The 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 on Twitter. Her Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, on Sunday paid tribute on Twitter to a dead emergency service worker.

Models by Spain’s public Carlos III Health Institute estimate that at least 350 people died over the previous week as a result of the country’s heat – far above the weekly average of about 60 deaths, though in line with the impact of heat episodes in prior years. The institute reported more than 800 heat-linked deaths last month, when similarly scorching temperatures hit the country and other parts of Europe, with temperatures reaching between 104 and 110 degrees.

The number of fatalities could still rise above the estimates – it sometimes takes days or weeks until authorities have a clear understanding of heat-linked death tolls, which are difficult to estimate in real time.

Authorities warned that the heat would degrade air quality in major urban population centers.

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

The U.K. Health Security Agency issued a Level 4 heat alert, its highest level, 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 that “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 the Met Office, called the forecast temperatures “absolutely unprecedented.”

She acknowledged that while 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.”

The extreme temperatures forced the diversion of flights from the RAF Brize Norton air base and Luton Airport on Monday. The Royal Air Force said the diversion had “no impact on RAF operations.” Luton, one of the country’s busiest airports, said repairs were still underway by late afternoon local time, after a “surface defect” was spotted on its runway.

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

Transportation 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.

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 London 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 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.

This summer’s heat has revived a debate over how to prepare citizens for the impact of climate change.

While environmental concerns over the use of air conditioning remain widespread in Europe, with as many as 75% of all French having no air conditioning, 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 encouraged residents and tourists to use a dedicated website to find 900 “islands of coolness,” including 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. Some buildings are using cool water pipes as a more environmentally friendly alternative to air conditioning.

Studies suggest that such measures have brought down heat-related mortality since 2003, which has encouraged more adaptation plans in cities like Paris. Over the next few years, the French capital wants to plant tens of thousands of additional trees, amid hopes that they may help to lower air and surface temperatures in cobblestone squares and asphalt roads that trap the heat.

But as climate change progresses, the increasingly brutal heat islands that build up in urban areas could pose risks that may be beyond conventional solutions – even today, the difference in temperatures between Paris and its greener surroundings can at times approach 18 degrees (10 Celsius). People living in poorer areas, who are more likely to live in unrenovated buildings and without easy access to green spaces, are particularly affected. Many of the elderly residents who died in recent heat waves in France were at home and not in nursing facilities.

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, and intense hailstorms that brought heavy rain, followed by more drought this summer.

“The drought in much of Europe is critical,” the European Commission’s research branch concluded in a report released Monday, which warned that “a staggering portion of Europe” – about half of European Union and British territory – is now at risk of drought.

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