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The U.K. breaks its record for highest temperature as the heat builds

A man refreshes his face at a fountain in Trafalgar Square in central London on Tuesday.
Aaron Chown
/
PA via AP
A man refreshes his face at a fountain in Trafalgar Square in central London on Tuesday.

Updated July 19, 2022 at 9:06 AM ET

LONDON — Britain shattered its record for highest temperature ever registered Tuesday amid a heat wave that has seized swaths of Europe — and the national weather forecaster predicted it would get hotter still in a country ill prepared for such extremes.

The typically temperate nation was just the latest to be walloped by unusually hot, dry weather that has gripped the continent since last week, triggering wildfires from Portugal to the Balkans and leading to hundreds of heat-related deaths. Images of flames racing toward a French beach and Britons sweltering — even at the seaside — have driven home concerns about climate change.

The U.K. Met Office registered a provisional reading of 40.2 degrees Celsius (104.4 degrees Fahrenheit) at Heathrow Airport — breaking the record set just an hour earlier. Before Tuesday, the highest temperature recorded in Britain was 38.7 C (101.7 F), a record set in 2019.

The nation watched the mercury rise with a combination of horror and fascination. With several hours of intense sunlight ahead, the record could go even higher.

"Temperatures are likely to rise further through today,'' the forecaster said after the first record fell.

The sweltering weather has disrupted travel, health care and schools in a country not prepared for such extremes. A huge chunk of England, from London in the south to Manchester and Leeds in the north, remained under the country's first "red" warning for extreme heat Tuesday, meaning there is danger of death even for healthy people.

A man shields his eyes from the sun as he sunbathes backdropped by Tower Bridge in London on Tuesday.
Tony Hicks / AP
/
AP
A man shields his eyes from the sun as he sunbathes backdropped by Tower Bridge in London on Tuesday.

London streets saw less traffic, as many heeded advice to stay out of the sun, and trains ran at low speed out of concern rails could buckle, or did not run at all. The British Museum — which has a glass-roofed atrium — planned to shut its doors early. And the Supreme Court closed to visitors after a problem with the air conditioning forced it to move hearings online.

Many public buildings, including hospitals, don't even have air conditioning, a reflection of how unusual such extreme heat is in the country better known for rain and mild temperatures.

The capital's Hyde Park, normally busy with walkers, was eerily quiet — except for the long lines to take a dip in the park's Serpentine lake.

"I'm going to my office because it is nice and cool,'' said geologist Tom Elliott, 31, after taking a swim. "I'm cycling around instead of taking the Tube.''

London's King's Cross Station, one of the country's busiest rail hubs, was empty on Tuesday, with no trains on the typically bustling east coast line connecting the capital to the north and Scotland. London's Luton Airport closed its runway for several hours Monday because of heat damage.

A railway worker hands out bottles of water to passengers at King's Cross railway station where there are train cancellations due to the heat in London on Tuesday.
Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
/
AP
A railway worker hands out bottles of water to passengers at King's Cross railway station where there are train cancellations due to the heat in London on Tuesday.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain's transport infrastructure, some of it dating from Victorian times, "just wasn't built to withstand this type of temperature — and it will be many years before we can replace infrastructure with the kind of infrastructure that could."

The dangers of extreme heat were on display in Britain and around Europe. At least six people were reported to have drowned across the U.K. in rivers, lakes and reservoirs while trying to cool off. Meanwhile, nearly 750 heat-related deaths have been reported in Spain and neighboring Portugal in the heat wave there.

The highest temperature previously recorded in Britain was 38.7 C (101.7 F), a record set in 2019. Tuesday's reading was provisional, which means they are produced as near to real time as possible with final readings issued after data quality-control, the Met Office said.

Climate experts warn that global warming has increased the frequency of extreme weather events, with studies showing that the likelihood of temperatures in the U.K. reaching 40 C (104 F) is now 10 times higher than in the pre-industrial era. In fact, that once unthinkable mark looked possible — even likely — Tuesday.

"This record temperature is a harbinger of things to come,'' said Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics. "The increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and other extreme weather events is the result of climate change, and these impacts will continue to grow" unless the world drastically reduces emissions.

Drought and heat waves tied to climate change have also made wildfires harder to fight.

In the Gironde region of southwestern France, ferocious wildfires continued to spread through tinder-dry pines forests, frustrating firefighting efforts by more than 2,000 firefighters and water-bombing planes.

More than 37,000 people have been evacuated from homes and summer vacation spots since the fires broke out July 12 and burned through 190 square kilometers (more than 70 square miles) of forests and vegetation, Gironde authorities said.

A smaller third fire broke out late Monday in the Medoc wine region north of Bordeaux, further taxing firefighting resources. Five camping sites went up in flames in the Atlantic coast beach zone where blazes raged, around the Arcachon maritime basin famous for its oysters and resorts.

But weather forecasts offered some consolation, with heat-wave temperatures expected to ease along the Atlantic seaboard Tuesday and the possibility of rains rolling in late in the day.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press