Taking the Temperature: a dispatch from the UK

Well, it has happened. Forty degrees Celsius. It was bound to happen eventually, given the lack of determined action to halt our rising temperatures worldwide. Those who insisted such a temperature was impossible here in the UK have been left with egg on their faces. It was not a case of if, but when.

The synoptic pattern, high pressure to our east and a cut-off low to our far south-west (and approaching us) is common enough in UK summers. What is less common is that a more-or-less direct pathway was made available to advect hot air up from North Africa, across Europe and on to the UK. This was an unusually well-preserved hot airmass; for example over southern England on 19th July, 850 hPa temperatures were as high as 24C. That morning, to the lee of the Cambrian Mountains of Wales, a low-level temperature inversion mixed-out in a turbulent SE breeze and at some weather-stations, temperatures climbed by 7C in the hour between 0500 and 0600 BST.

By the time that such phenomena were being observed, records had already fallen. On July 18th, Wales kicked things off to a flying start: the old record high temperature (35.2C, 1990) got blown out of the water with a reading of 37.1C. An unpleasantly hot night followed, both in Wales and England; in both cases the overnight highest minimum temperature record was shattered at 24.5C and 25.8C respectively. July 19th brought things to a grand finale with the UK temperature record (38.7C, 2019) falling across an extensive area from London up to Lincolnshire. RAF Coningsby clinched top marks in the end, with 40.3C. Scotland also got in on the action with its highest recorded temperature of 35.1C* and its highest overnight minimum of 23.9C.

* although the Wales and England record temperatures were verified by the UK Met Office, the 35.1C Scotland record failed that test: the second highest of 34.8C is however good and is still a record. JM 02:08:22

Wildfire accompanied the dry heat: the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, described the situation faced by fire-crews in London as the “busiest since the Second World War”. Homes, gardens, woods and heathland alike were consumed by the flames: the final count, according to Khan, was 41 houses gone.

Something of a wake-up call, yes? Probably, but for the continued efforts of the right-wing media. It's a strange beast, that. We have covered one of its tentacles, the Daily Express, on here before. The Express is fond of scaring its readers with headlines like, “100 days of Heavy Snow” every autumn; in fact you don't really need a calendar any more. You know October has arrived if the Express is running those snow-apocalypse stories. On this occasion, however, its tone was somewhat different:

Daily Express cover, July 2022 heatwave

We've also covered the Daily Mail and its climate change denial over many years, here for example. Like the Express, the Mail employs people who appear not to understand the science, to opine upon it. In the early hours of July 19th, an editorial written by one Stephen Robinson presented a lengthy diatribe against the UK's Met Office (who in fact did an excellent job of forecasting the heatwave and the distribution of the highest temperatures). Here's an example of Robinson's tone:

“Taxpayers are footing the bill for the Met Office to peddle this fatuous health and safety advice. It doesn’t matter whether any of these bodies has the jurisdiction or expertise to opine on these matters. They are tolerated and bankrolled for as long as they parrot the predicable woke line.”

Less than 24 hours later, records had been shattered and London was burning.

I've had to conclude after much consideration that, “woke”, no longer means, “socially aware” (a good thing) but instead means, “anything that a right-wing free marketeer dislikes”. Covid restrictions? WOKE! Science? WOKE!! Climate science? DOUBLE WOKE!! We're supposed after all to get trained-up, work hard, consume as much as possible and then die, like items on a conveyor-belt. Anything else is therefore woke. Sorry, WOKE!!

Several days in advance, the Met Office had issued a Red warning for the heat, justifiably. A Red is the highest level warning in the UK system and means life-threatening conditions. 40C without some form of relief like air-conditioning is dangerous: UK infrastructure is not designed to cope with such temperatures because when much of it was built, 40C seemed highly improbable. Places that see heat like that on a regular basis tend to design both infrastructure and ways of life around it. We haven't.

Running highly implausible cold weather stories whilst downplaying dangerous heat are just two spanners in the science misinformer's toolbox. A hi-visibility meme placed on social media - and accelerated towards infinity by a complicit army of robotic sharers - attempted to downplay the 2022 heatwave by comparing it with the prolonged hot and dry UK summer of 1976. Expanding on the theme, the post included a complaint that old forecast graphics did not have all those scary shades of red on them – indicating high temperatures. Apparently, they looked like BLOOD! Therefore, creating FEAR! Never mind that similar colour-scales have been used for almost as long as I've been alive (almost 60 years) in various ways. I've always understood that blue colours mean cold, red ones hot, since the first time, as a young boy, that I jumped into the deep blue sea on the UK coast on a hot day but only in early summer. Eek!

But let's do that data thing. The maximum recorded temperature in 1976 was at Cheltenham on July 3rd, when it reached 35.9C. That figure can be found in moments. In contrast, July 19th 2022 was more than 4C warmer – widely. When that 4C difference takes things above the human body temperature (~37C), it becomes serious if many of the population are not used to that.

These days though, when denialists try it on, the meteorological/climate community are ready for them: in this case, they counter-shared this rather neat graphic, tweeted by Ed Hawkins on June 20th and simply waiting for its moment:

1976 versus 2014-2021 summers

Data:HadCRUT5. Baseline 1961-1990. Graphic: Ed Hawkins.

Personally, I think the likes of the Mail and the Express should be ashamed of themselves and desist from publishing the anti-science nonsense. But that, they will argue, goes against freedom of speech. “Help! We are being CANCELLED by the WOKE!!!” Someone said on Twitter recently,

“Their readers do not care. They wait by the letterbox every day waiting to be told what to be angry about for the next 24 hours”.

That may be true to an extent, although it's probably unfair to the entire readership!

The thing is, in my view, with freedom there comes responsibility and feeding their readers with made-up nonsense definitely comes under irresponsible. Heat like that of the past two days IS dangerous, no ifs or buts. And we had better get used to it: thanks to those very same misinformers, the politicians and those who vote for them, who have together kicked the climate can down the road for too long. Further warming is now a given, even if we do reach net-zero by mid-Century. It needn't have been. But if anything counts as an incentive to act, the last two days here in the UK tick the box.

Posted by John Mason on Friday, 22 July, 2022

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