Last year’s multi record-breaking hot and dry weather will become “typical” in the UK in under 40 years, the Met Office has warned.
The remarkable weather of last year – when almost every month was hotter than average, wildfires torched homes and more people died in the summer – was considered extreme.
But by 2060 – potentially in the lifetime of anyone now under around 40 – that persistent hot weather weather will become simply average, the Met Office has said in its annual State of the UK Climate report.
And by the end of the century – when many young children today will still be alive – such heat will be regarded as cool weather.
That is assuming the world warms by around 2.4C, as is expected based on current energy policies.
Not only was 2022 the first year in the UK when heat first soared to 40C (104F), shattering the previous record by a significant 1.6C, it was also the warmest year on record. Both were made more likely by climate change.
These things “emphasise” that our climate is “changing now and it’s changing fast”, lead author Mike Kendon said.
In its annual review of the previous year’s weather, published on Thursday, the Met Office found:
• 2022 was the warmest year in records dating back to 1884
• 40C heat was hit for the first time ever
• Every month other than December was warmer than the average for the past two decades
• The period from January to August was the driest across England and Wales since 1976
• 2022 was one of the least snowy years on record when compared with the past 60 years
• Almost every species regarded as indicative of spring appeared between one and 10 days early
• Temperatures in Durham and Bradford exceeded their previous records by a striking 4C
Why 2022 is a ‘milestone in climate history’
While we “shouldn’t be surprised” by the findings, which echo previous reports, last year still marked a “milestone of climate history”, Mr Kendon said.
That is partly because temperatures topped 40C for the first time.
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But also because the summer in particular gave “a sign of things to come in future years”, said Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, which published the document.
Most recent summers have been quite wet, but last year brought the first hot, dry summer for a while. These are the type we expect to become more common with climate change, she said.
Can the UK cope with more heat?
Last year saw a slew of new health warnings – the Met Office issued its first red warning for extreme heat. The UK Health Security Agency issued a level four – the limit – and the government triggered a national heat emergency in England.
But the government’s newly published plan to deal with heat and other climate impacts was recently criticised as “deeply disappointing”.
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Dr Ellie Murtagh, UK Climate Adaptation Lead at the British Red Cross, also said there was a “perception gap in the UK, with people not realising the danger extreme weather can pose”.
An extra roughly 2,800 vulnerable people died during last year’s extraordinarily hot summer.
We must “ensure people most vulnerable to heat risk are able to access the targeted information, advice and support they need to take action and stay safe and healthy”.
Though only projections, they are worrying
By 2060, even in a scenario where carbon emissions start to level off, 2022 will be viewed as an average year, and by the end of the century might even be considered cool.
Although these are only predictions, they are striking, and worrying.
Because according to academics and campaigners, the UK simply is not ready for what is to come.
A glance at what happened last year gives you an idea of the scale of the difficulty.
Wildfires fuelled by dry vegetation destroyed nearly 20 properties on the edge of London. More over 65s died during the heat.
Train tracks buckled. Productivity dipped.
The government recognises the problem and has recently released an updated national adaptation programme.
But critics say the strategy still lacks ambition, scale and pace.
The independent Climate Change Committee has previously warned that there is “very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed to fully prepare for climate risks facing the UK across cities, communities, infrastructure, economy and ecosystems”.
There are those who argue that generally rising temperatures may well benefit the UK – fewer deaths from the cold, for example, or the potential to grow new crops.
But extreme heat is dangerous and disruptive, and one of the big problems for the UK is that unlike our neighbours in southern Europe, it is a relatively new challenge.
Dr Candice Howarth from the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, puts it like this:
“The UK needs to establish a more sensible ‘culture of heat’, learning from experiences of dealing with extreme heat across Europe and the globe, with effective communication, education and engagement on extreme heat and how people can prepare and respond.
“If the government fails to show more leadership on preparing for these extreme heat events, then we are likely to see a rise in heat-related deaths, wider impacts on workers’ health and productivity, and increasing rates of overheating in UK homes and buildings that are ill-equipped to stay cool in the summer.”
Creating a “culture of heat” in a place traditionally famous for its rain and mild temperatures will be a huge challenge, but it is one that must be met if we are to be prepared for the future scientists say is coming.
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