The Met Office’s National Severe Weather Warning Service (NSWWS) issued the first-ever Extreme Heat warning in the UK on 1 June – signalling both Amber and Red level of heat wave dangers.
The UK has been facing major extreme weather this summer: from a more predictable heatwave to unexpected weather such as floods, hail storms and thunderstorms. The UK hit record temperatures for the year on Tuesday, as a record of 32.2C was recorded at London Heathrow Airport.
On the other hand, NSWWS also issued warnings for “colder” weather as floods and thunderstorms are to be expected in East Anglia and the southeast. Moreover, the Environment Agency has issued 16 flood alerts in parts of London, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
This comes just a few weeks after major European floods that hit regions of Germany, France and Belgium with Germany facing the highest mortality of around 125 people.
So has this year been an exception or is this a sign for humans to adopt a major U-turn before further exposure to global warming leads to an even greater level of destruction to our planet?
UK weather: contrasting extremes
On Sunday, heavy rain and thunderstorms caused major flooding in key areas of London. This led to many disruptions in transport and even medical operations. In response to the flooding, NHS Barts Trust reported:
‘We are working closely with our local partners to resolve the issues and maintain patient care and — while services remain available for people in an emergency — patients are asked to attend alternative hospitals where they can, to help us put solutions in place as quickly as possible.’
To make matters worse, police had to close a road in south-west London as three double-decker buses were stuck under a railway bridge.
The water-levels caused by the floods has led to 300-flooding related calls reported by the London fire brigade and the cancellation of the Standon Calling music festival, which took place in Hertfordshire with 15,000 participants:
‘If you can safely leave the site this evening please do so as soon as possible. We are working on getting everyone off site as safely and quickly as possible.’ tweeted Standon Calling.
However, prior to Sunday (18/07), the UK has reported contrasting weather extremes of major heat waves across the country. On Monday, Heathrow reached a temperature of 31.4C while Cardiff reached 30.9C. Northern Ireland also reported its hottest day ever on Saturday as Ballywatticock, County Down reached its mercury at 31.2C – breaking its previous record of 30.8C which was reported in 1983 and 1976.
In response to this, the UK Met Police has newly introduced its weather warning system; with Yellow, Amber and Red signalling the severity of the weather.
Yellow signals that the weather is likely to cause some low level impacts including; some disruption to transport and health difficulties to the most vulnerable. Amber indicates that the weather will disrupt our day to day activities; this means there is a possibility of travel delays, road and rail closures, power cuts and the potential risk to life and property. Lastly, red warns that dangerous weather is expected and that it is very likely that there will be a risk to life, with substantial disruption to travel, energy supplies and possibly widespread damage to property and infrastructure.
Aside from its environmental impacts, the severity of the weather can be seen from its effects towards people’s health. Public Health England (PHE) has issued a Level 3 heat-health alert which will last until Friday – indicating that health risks associated with extreme heat could persist for the vulnerable until then.
The Welsh Ambulance Service recently reported an incident after extreme pressures of 2,000 999 calls per day for the last three days. In London, the fire brigade reported to have taken 300 flooding-related calls in just a few hours on Sunday.
‘More than 2,500 deaths were linked to heatwave conditions last summer, the highest number since the Heatwave Plan was introduced in 2004… We are now facing conditions that are similar to the period of hot weather that occurred in August 2020, resulting in more than 1700 deaths across England.’ warned Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE.
Extreme weather has not only affected the UK; weeks prior to this, Europe has been ravaged by heavy floods that have so far been responsible for more than 200 people.
Causes of this extreme weather
The obvious cause of the weather extremity has to be climate change. Specifically, it is the heat and moisture that have been trapped over the weeks leading up to the floods that led to heavy rains and thunderstorms.
Climate change led to the warming up of the planet, with a little more than 1C increase since the 19th century. Approximately two-thirds of this warming has happened since 1975. And for every one celsius of warming, air can hold about 7 percent more moisture – this consequently leads to more precipitation:
‘You warm up the planet, of course, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You also have the potential for larger flooding events because the warm atmosphere can hold more moisture. But at the same time, that extra heat can dry out the ground and you get worse droughts.’ explained Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State.
Moreover, some experts suggest that the rapid warming of the Arctic is affecting the jet stream. As a result, the speed of the jet stream movement slows down and focuses only on one region – leading to extreme conditions. According to Dr. Fowler, a professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University, one effect in summer and fall is that the high altitude, globe-circling air current is weakening and slowing down. ‘That means the storms have to move more slowly,’ she said.
As the storms were practically stationary and there was more moisture in the system, extra-heavy rains over a given area are more prone to happen. In Europe, this near-stationary jet stream is named ‘Bernd’ and is believed to have been the major cause of floods in France, Belgium and Germany.
The Deutscher Wetterdienst, Germany’s equivalent to the Met Office, believes that the heavy-floods that have been occurring in the country have been so severe because the ‘Bernd’ was ‘surrounded by high-pressure systems and was therefore unable to move on’.
Similarly in London, the Met Police believes that recent floods were likely linked to the weather extremity in Europe:
Grahame Madge, from the Met Office, said: “What tends to happen with these quite big country-scale features is that other weather patterns around them will be influenced. It’s affected the flow over the UK and contributed to some of these intense showers.”
Our future: will extreme weather be part of the new normal?
This is not the first year that extreme weather temperatures have been recorded; last year was Europe’s hottest year since records began over 300 years ago.
When asked what could happen in the future in regards of our climate, Michael Mann answered the following;
“There are two paths. One is a path of destruction. The other road is one where we do what’s necessary, where we reduce carbon emissions by a factor two within the next decade, where the countries of the world come together. But that window is closing. We need to act now if we are to go down that far better path.”
He added, “All eyes right now are on the behavior of the great ice sheets – the Antarctic ice sheet, the Greenland ice sheet. As goes those ice sheets, goes sea level rise. And in a worst-case scenario, we’re looking at meters of sea level rise over a timeframe as short as half a century. The major cities, the coastal cities of the world will all be threatened. Tens to hundreds of millions of people could be displaced.”
And so, the answer to the question is; whether or not extreme weather will be part of the new normal depends on what we are going to do about it.
About the Author: Annisa Kumaladewi
Annisa Kumaladewi is a contributing current affairs Features writer. Her expertise lies in current affairs in the Asian diaspora, Indonesian history and World political philosophy.
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