The Washington Post

U.K. heat could top records centuries — even eras — old


london — Has it ever, in human history, been this hot in the British isles? Maybe not.

If you want to mark an unnatural, scary, real-world data point for climate change, it is here in Britain, right now, where temperatur­es are forecast to soar as high as 40 Celsius — 104 Fahrenheit — on Tuesday, an extreme weather episode, a freak peak-heat, not seen since modern record keeping began a century and a half ago.

And probably not since weather observatio­n got serious here in 1659. And maybe far longer.

Hitting 40C, for British climate scientists, is a kind of a unicorn event that had appeared in their models but until recently seemed almost unbelievab­le and unattainab­le this soon.

Houston? Islamabad? New Delhi? Hardly surprising when they’re hot as a furnace.

But London? The high-latitude city — with its recorded history dating back to the Romans — has probably never experience­d temperatur­e such as those as forecast today.

Surely no Briton alive now — or his or her great-great or greatgrand­parents — has felt 40C without traveling abroad. Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, William Shakespear­e, Henry VIII? They never faced down a 40C day.

This nation was not built to withstand such heat. Its homes, workplaces, roads, rails, hospitals and infrastruc­ture were constructe­d for temperate weather — Shakespear­e’s “other Eden, demiparadi­se” — not this inferno.

Britain has some of the most extensive weather records in the world, logged via diaries, observatio­n and instrument­s as far back as the Age of Enlightenm­ent, including daily records archived since the 1770s and monthly maximums and minimums dating back to 1660s.

Currently, the highest official temperatur­e is 38.7°C (101.7° F), recorded at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens on July 25, 2019. Almost all the highest recorded temperatur­es occur in recent years.

“We are absolutely confident we have not recorded a 40C day going back to the mid 1850s,” Mark Mccarthy, manager of National Climate Informatio­n Centre for the Met Office, told The Washington Post, referring to the beginning of the weather service’s instrument-measured temperatur­e records.

Alexander Farnsworth, a paleoclima­tologist at the University of Bristol, was willing to travel back further in time. “There is no direct evidence that the U.K has exceeded 40C in the past 6,000 or so years,” he told The Post.

That would be back to the middle Holocene.

With caveats, Farnsworth warned.

To go deep into prehistory, before instrument data, scientists must rely on proxies that tell them average temperatur­es over long periods of time — looking at lake and marine sediments, ice cores, corals, glaciation, bugs in bogs, tree rings, and such, to estimate past climate.

Over the past 2,000 years, it did get warmer in Britain during the Medieval Warm Period — between 750 and 1350 — but probably not as hot as the late 20th and early 21st centuries, most scientists say.

The medieval Domesday Book, completed in 1086 as a kind of census, tallied 45 vineyards in Britain, as far north as York — so it was warm enough to grow grape vines, a tradition brought to the island by the ancient Romans.

Then there was the Little Ice Age, from 1300 to 1850, when the Northern Hemisphere grew colder again. This warming and cooling was not caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, as today, but by the subtle tilt and wobble of the planet as it faced the sun.

The Intergover­nmental Panel on Climate Change, representi­ng the authoritat­ive consensus of world scientists, reported in 2021 that overall, and on average, the Earth is now warmer than it’s been in 125,000 years.

Some experts in paleoclima­te studies say it’s possible that to top 21st century heat in Britain, you’d have to go back to the Miocene Climatic Optimum, about 15 million years ago, when the world looked quite unlike today. Back then, the continents were bumping around. There were different seas and mountain ranges. There were mammals, but no humans.

Myles Allen, a professor of geoscience at Oxford University, suggested caution. He said it was clear from the 1850s onward there has never been a day with 40C. But the further one looks back in time, the fuzzier the picture may be.

One remarkable thing, Allen said, is how accurate climate models have become — both at forecastin­g the future and looking backward in time.

Researcher­s at the Met Office have reported that in the “natural climate” of the preindustr­ial world, there might be one day in every 7,000 years that Britain could face 40C.

Today, the likelihood is once every 100 to 300 years — and growing. According to the models, a 40C day could happen once every 15 years by 2100 if countries meet their carbon emission promises — or once every 3 or 4 years if they continue to emit as much pollution as they do today.

Simon Lee, an atmospheri­c scientist at Columbia University, who was born and raised in North Yorkshire, England, wrote on his blog that the idea of 40C is was a “seemingly unthinkabl­e temperatur­e for a country with an aging population which does not have widespread residentia­l air conditioni­ng.”

But “everything changed” on June 30, he wrote, with the publicatio­n of a Global Ensemble Forecast System model forecast dotted with 40C across southeast England. “Given that the UK’S previous hottest days had only seen 38°C exceeded very locally, this was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.” Scientists were initially skeptical. No more.

Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, told The Post, “We thought the models were wrong,” but today we are “sitting in the middle of a changing climate.”

“It’s unpreceden­ted,” she said, this kind of forecast, “where we might see and feel something we’ve never experience­d here before.”

 ?? Jose Sarmento Matos/bloomberg NEWS ?? A person stands in the shade in London on Monday. Experts are confident that Britain has not recorded a temperatur­e above 40 degrees Celsius since the 1850s, but some believe that the British isles have not experience­d such temperatur­es in nearly 6,000 years.
Jose Sarmento Matos/bloomberg NEWS A person stands in the shade in London on Monday. Experts are confident that Britain has not recorded a temperatur­e above 40 degrees Celsius since the 1850s, but some believe that the British isles have not experience­d such temperatur­es in nearly 6,000 years.

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