Britain tops 40 C for the 1st time as Europe sizzles under record heat wave

The latest:

  • London facing ‘huge surge’ in fires, says mayor.
  • Trains cancelled over worries heat could buckle rails.
  • Sales of fans increase 1,300%, says one U.K. retailer.
  • Hundreds of heat-related deaths in Portugal, Spain.
  • Large wildfires break out in France, Greece.

Britain shattered its record for highest temperature ever registered on Tuesday amid a heat wave that has seared swaths of Europe. The U.K.’s national weather forecaster said such highs are now a fact of life in a country ill-prepared for such extremes.

The typically temperate nation was just the latest to be walloped by unusually hot, dry weather that has triggered wildfires from Portugal to the Balkans and led to hundreds of heat-related deaths. Images of flames racing toward a French beach and Britons sweltering — even at the seaside — have driven home concerns about climate change.

The U.K. 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 U.K. 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.

A woman and baby take shelter from the sun under an umbrella amid a heat wave in London on Tuesday. The U.K. Met Office registered its first record of 39.1 C Tuesday morning, and by late afternoon, 29 places in the U.K. had broken that record. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

He warned that “we could see temperatures like this every three years” without serious action on carbon emissions.

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.

The intense heat since Monday has damaged the runway at London’s Luton airport, forcing it to shut for several hours, and warped a main road in eastern England, leaving it looking like a “skatepark,” police said. Major train stations were shut or near-empty Tuesday, as trains were cancelled or ran at low speeds out of concern that rails could buckle.

London faced what Mayor Sadiq Khan called a “huge surge” in fires because of the heat. The London Fire Brigade listed 10 major blazes it was fighting across the city Tuesday, half of them grass fires.

Images showed several houses engulfed in flames as smoke billowed from burning fields in Wennington, a village on the eastern outskirts of London.

WATCH | Homes catch fire on Britain’s hottest day ever

Homes outside London catch fire as Britain records highest ever temperature

London’s firefighting authority declares a major incident as houses outside the city catch fire on Britain’s hottest ever recorded day.

Sales of fans at one retailer, Asda, increased by 1,300 per cent. Electric fans cooled the traditional mounted troops of the Household Cavalry as they stood guard in central London in heavy ceremonial uniforms. The length of the changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace was shortened.

The capital’s Hyde Park, normally busy with walkers, was eerily quiet — except for the long lines to take a dip in the Serpentine, the park’s lake. 

“I’m going to my office because it is nice and cool,” said geologist Tom Elliott, 31, after taking a swim. “I’m cycling around instead of taking the Tube.”

A person wets their hair at the fountain in London’s Trafalgar Square on Tuesday. The sweltering weather has disrupted travel, health care and schools in a country not prepared for such extremes. (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)

Ever the stalwart, Queen Elizabeth II carried on working. The 96-year-old monarch held a virtual audience with new U.S. ambassador Jane Hartley from the safety of Windsor Castle.

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.

Climate change ‘wake-up call’

Such dangers could be seen in Britain and across Europe. At least six people were reported to have drowned while trying to cool off in rivers, lakes and reservoirs across the U.K. In Spain and neighbouring Portugal, hundreds of heat-related deaths have been reported in the heat wave.

Climate experts warn that global warming has increased the frequency of extreme weather events, with studies showing that the likelihood of temperatures in the U.K. reaching 40 C is now 10 times higher than in the pre-industrial era.

WATCH | Why are temperatures in Europe rising so quickly?: 

Europe heating up faster than much of the world, climate scientist says

The heat wave enveloping much of Europe and the U.K. is due to global warming, says climate scientist Vikki Thompson, and this ‘accelerated trend’ in heat waves will continue unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

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. Other scientists used the milestone moment to underscore that it was time to act.

“While still rare, 40 C is now a reality of British summers,” said Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change. “Whether it will become a very common occurrence or remains relatively infrequent is in our hands and is determined by when and at what global mean temperature we reach net zero.”

Wildfires in France, Greece

Extreme heat broiled other parts of Europe, too. In Paris, the thermometer in the French capital’s oldest weather station — opened in 1873 — topped 40 C for just the third time. The 40.5 C measured there by weather service Météo-France on Tuesday was the station’s second-highest reading ever, topped only by a blistering 42.6 C in July 2019.

Drought and heat waves tied to climate change have also made wildfires more common and harder to fight.

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.

A firefighter works to extinguish a forest fire in Louchats, western France, on Tuesday. (Romain Perrocheau/AFP/Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from homes and summer vacation spots since the fires broke out July 12, 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.

In Greece, a large forest fire broke out northeast of Athens, fanned by high winds. Fire Service officials said nine firefighting aircraft and four helicopters were deployed to try to stop the flames from reaching inhabited areas on the slopes of Mount Penteli, some 25 kilometres northeast of the capital. Smoke from the fire blanketed part of the city’s skyline.

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.