Climate change means UK’s heat record could be broken - less than three years after it was set

·3-min read

For 80 years, the summer of 1911 held the record as the hottest in the UK after temperatures peaked at 36.7C on August 9 in Raunds in Northamptonshire.

Deaths increased, with The Times writing a regular column on Deaths from Heat, while water supplies were cut off for several hours each day in cities such as Manchester and Bradford. Factory and mill workers were laid off due to water shortages and parched land for grazing led to an increase in the price of milk.

A group of boys paddle in the fountain at Trafalgar Square to cool off during the 1911 heatwave (Getty Images)
A group of boys paddle in the fountain at Trafalgar Square to cool off during the 1911 heatwave (Getty Images)

Decades later, the record was eventually broken in the summer of 1990 when the maximum temperature reached 37.1C in the Gloucestershire town of Cheltenham. Since then, the 1911 36.7C record has been met or exceeded four times, and a further two highest temperature records have been set.

“High-temperature records are being reached or exceeded more frequently, and we’re repeatedly exceeding temperatures from extreme heatwaves from our past,” said Mark McCarthy, a climate scientist at the Met Office.

“This is a consequence of human-induced climate change which is warming the climate of the UK, Europe and the world.”

As Britain swelters once again, climate scientists have repeatedly said that heatwaves are becoming more frequent, longer and hotter due to climate change.

Girls wade into the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park to keep cool during the August 1911 heatwave (Getty Images)
Girls wade into the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park to keep cool during the August 1911 heatwave (Getty Images)

Earlier this week, the Met Office warned there was a 30 per cent chance the country could record its hottest temperature in the coming days, surpassing the 38.7C 2019 record. That was downgraded to about a 1 in 5 chance on Wednesday, with the highest temperature now forecast for Monday or Tuesday next week with forecasts of high 30s in the southeast of the country and high 20s to low 30s in the rest of the country.

“The current heatwave is a dangerous reminder of the accelerating impacts of global warming,” Dr Michael Byrne, a reader in earth and environmental sciences at the University of St Andrews, said earlier this week. “With London expected to feel like Barcelona by 2050, the UK is braced for more frequent and severe heatwaves over coming years.”

The increasing frequency of record-breaking heat in the UK is already evident.

Nude swimming in Regents Canal during a heatwave in 1911 (Getty Images)
Nude swimming in Regents Canal during a heatwave in 1911 (Getty Images)

After the 1990 record-breaking temperature, a new record was set in Kent at a sweltering 38.5C. That summer, some 2,000 heat-related deaths were recorded in Britain, while across the English Channel in France around 15,000 died due to the heat, causing mortuaries to overflow.

Then in July 2015, 36.7C was recorded at Heathrow - the same temperature as the 1911 heatwave - followed by 38.7C recorded at Cambridge Botanic Garden in July 2019. That set a new all-time UK temperature record that still stands today.

In 2020, as the UK was in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, temperatures peaked at 37.8C, beating 1911’s 36.7 degrees.

The country also experienced a major summer heatwave that August, during which 34 degrees celsius was exceeded somewhere in the UK on six consecutive days, accompanied by five rare “tropical nights,” during which temperatures remained above 20C.

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