UK heatwave leaves behind trail of fire amid calls for climate change action
Image credit: PA Media
UK temperatures have reached a historic 40°C, provoking transport disruptions and fires that have affected dozens of homes, schools and churches, with crews describing scenes as 'absolute hell'.
Calls for action on climate change have intensified as a result of the heatwave and predictions from experts that extreme weather events such as this one will only become more frequent over the coming decades, fuelled by climate change.
"We need to be ready," said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as passengers faced more disruption in the record-breaking heat.
Shapps conceded the UK’s transport network cannot cope with the intense heat, saying that the Victorian-era infrastructure “just wasn’t built to withstand this type of temperature” and stressed that Britain must “keep ramping up the specification” of its railways to cope with extreme temperatures, although upgrading existing lines would likely "take decades".
On Tuesday, the UK reached the highest temperature ever recorded in the country, as thermometers in London Heathrow saw a provisional high of 40.2°C. A total of six sites, mostly in Greater London, saw temperatures reach or exceed 40°C. However, the heat has significantly affected the country's infrastructure, with the hottest railway track reaching a scorching temperature of 62°C on Monday.
“Because the spec has been minus 10 degrees to plus 35 degrees – and we’re now suffering 40 degrees plus – clearly we need to keep ramping up the specification," Shapps said. Asked if the transport system can cope with the weather, he said: “The simple answer at the moment is no.”
Network Rail said temperatures on rails can rise to 20°C higher than air temperature, sometimes causing them to “expand, bend and break”. As a result of the heatwave, all services to and from London Euston were suspended and emergency services were called to a lineside fire caused by overhead electric cables coming down in Harrow.
Fires have been a common denominator of heat-related incidents across the country.
Firefighters have described blazes tearing through homes and buildings in London as “absolute hell” – with residents evacuated, people taken to hospital and a major incident declared. As temperatures in the capital soared to more than 40°C on Tuesday afternoon, “several significant” incidents occurred, with people urged not to have barbecues or bonfires due to the “unprecedented” challenges crews face.
The fires were most extreme in Wennington, east London, on Tuesday afternoon, where black smoke billowed into the air, while flames destroyed buildings and ravaged nearby fields; similar incidents were also declared in Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and South Yorkshire amid the tinder-dry conditions.
“Yesterday was the busiest day for the fire service in London since the Second World War," said London mayor Sadiq Khan. “On a normal day the fire service receives – roughly speaking – 350 calls, and on a busy day 500 calls. Yesterday they received more than 2,600 calls.”
The mayor indicated that this surge in fires can be traced to the impact of climate change and said that he is “angry” that none of the candidates to replace Boris Johnson in the Tory leadership contest are prioritising tackling climate change.
“There’s a leadership contest to choose the next Prime Minister, and no one’s talking about the elephant in the room, which is climate change causing the heatwave where temperatures are exceeding 40°C," Khan said.
“We’ve got a situation where we have heatwaves every two or three years rather than every 10 or 15 years. What we should be doing is dealing with the consequences of climate change and air quality, but also dealing with the causes as well."
In addition to the carbon emissions produced by major industries, experts have also pointed out the dangers of the current state of UK infrastructure, which is currently unprepared to handle the high temperatures. For example, the proximity of houses to vast green spaces in London contributed to 41 properties, including homes and warehouses, being destroyed by fires on Tuesday, according to Khan.
Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, has promised that the government will “step in” to help families hit by major blazes sparked by the extreme heat and agreed that the fires were a “warning sign” about the impact of climate change.
“This is a reminder today I think of the importance of tackling climate change," he said. "Government will stand by people who need assistance."
Heatwaves are being made more intense, frequent and longer by climate change, and scientists said it would be “virtually impossible” for the UK to have experienced these record-breaking temperatures without human-driven global warming.
Over the last two days, London Ambulance Service reported having taken 13,400 999 calls, the equivalent of a call every 13 seconds. Early data has shown that on Tuesday, the service saw a ten-fold increase in incidents related to heat exposure compared to last week, and an 8 per cent increase in people fainting, it said.
The rising temperatures also left water providers experiencing supply issues and forced hospitals to scale back the number of planned surgeries, install cooling units, and try to cool down IT server rooms, according to Interim deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Miriam Deakin.
Now the worst of the heatwave has passed, civil organisations and climate activists have doubled down on calls for further action on climate change.
On Wednesday morning protesters from Just Stop Oil climbed motorway signs on the M25 and caused disruption over what they describe as the government’s “inadequate preparations” for climate change. On the other end of the political spectrum, Wednesday also saw the creation of a new "national centre right single issue party", the Climate Party.
“Politicians have failed to meet up to the challenges of climate change for decades and have left us unprepared and unprotected for this extreme weather," said Climate Party founder Ed Gemmell. "We’ve brought forward our planned launch because of the record-breaking heat and the complete lack of commitment on this issue shown by all the candidates in the Conservative Party leadership contest."
If no action is taken, studies have shown that climate change will place 39 per cent of the UK population at risk of flooding, and heat-related deaths could triple by the end of the decade. To avoid rising climate and heat-related deaths, the country is likely to face the need to adapt homes, cities and business infrastructure – as shown by the widespread fires that have taken over the nation
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.