(CN) — Great Britain recorded its hottest temperatures ever on Tuesday as a wave of heat from North Africa left Britons baking in homes without air conditioning and desperately looking for ways to cool down.
At about 1:30 pm Tuesday, the Met Office in Britain said a temperature of 40.2 degrees Celsius (104.3 Fahrenheit) had been recorded at London Heathrow. It marked the first time ever for a temperature to exceed 40 C 104 F) in Britain. The previous record was 38.7 C (101.7 F).
“Well, I wasn't expecting to see this in my career,” said Stephen Belcher, the chief scientist the Met Office. “For me, it's a real reminder that the climate has changed and that it will continue to change.”
He said studies show that it would be “virtually impossible” to hit such high temperatures in Britain without global warming. He said similar extreme heat will return frequently to Britain unless global warming is drastically curbed.
At least this time around, the heat wave in Britain was set to be short-lived with thunderstorms in the forecast for Wednesday.
Tuesday, though, was a shock for English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish unaccustomed to such high temperatures. The heat wave extended over all of England and reached Ireland and Scotland. Only about 3% of homes in the United Kingdom are outfitted with air conditioning.
In southern England, there were reports of roads buckling and the asphalt on airport runways melting, causing disruption to travel. Swimming pools and beaches were packed, electric fans hummed and people were advised to sit with their feet in water, deploy misting fans, drink ice-cold water and cool themselves with ice towels. In the House of Commons, the dress code was loosened a bit as parliamentarians were told they could forego jackets and ties.
For more than a week, a slow-moving high-pressure wave has been transporting heat from North Africa over western and parts of central Europe. This is the second heat wave to hit Europe this year.
On Monday, northern France saw heat records crushed too.
Brest on the Atlantic coast of Brittany hit 39.3 C (102.7 F), obliterating a previous record of 35.1 C (95.1 F) in 2002. The western city of Nantes recorded 42 C (107.6 F), soaring past a decades-old high of 40.3 C (104.5 F) set in 1949.
This heat wave saw much of southern and western Europe baking in temperatures between 40-47 C (104-117 F) and it's been blamed for hundreds of heat deaths, typically caused by heart attack or stroke.
Portugal reported 659 heat-related deaths between July 7 and July 17 and Spain said 510 people had died due to the heat over a similar period.
During a prolonged heat wave in 2003, an estimated 72,000 people died across Europe, according to United Nations figures.
Air conditioning remains uncommon in many European homes and businesses. A recent report by Inaba Denko, an air conditioning manufacturer, found that about 20% of European homes have air conditioning compared to more than 85% in the United States. Air conditioning sales though have surged in recent years as heat waves become ever more of a threat.
Meanwhile, wildfires have raged in Portugal, Spain, France, Croatia, Greece and Turkey, destroying thousands of acres of land and forcing large-scale evacuations.
The scorching heat wave comes on top of dry conditions. On Monday, the European Commission warned that about half of the bloc's territory is facing a risk of drought because of the lack of rain.
Earlier this month, Italy declared a state of emergency in drought-stricken northern regions fed by the Po River, Italy's largest water reservoir. The Po valley, which provides Italy with much of its agricultural production, is experiencing its worst drought in 70 years.
Coldiretti, Italy's largest agricultural union, warned that the drought threatens more than 30% of national agricultural production and half of the farms in the Po valley.
Europe suffered through similar conditions last summer with devastating wildfires spreading over large areas of Greece, Italy and Turkey.
In April, scientists with the Copernicus Climate Change Service reported that the summer of 2021 was the hottest on record for Europe, coming in at about 1 C (1.8 F) above the 1991-2020 average. Last summer saw Sicily mark a new record high in Europe when the temperature hit 48.8 C (119.8 F) in Syracuse.
The EU scientists also said last year as a whole was much cooler than recent years.
Scientists say human-caused global warming has already driven temperatures up globally by about 1 C and made heat waves and drought more likely.
Political tensions in Europe are heating up too as the EU's large-scale efforts to tackle global warming through a massive European Green Deal are being upended by the war in Ukraine, which has forced Europe to delay plans to close some coal-fired plants and to seek new sources of natural gas and oil after it imposed sanctions on Russia.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.