Freak heat hits UK in record-breaking February

Flowers and flames: Monday’s top temperature was 20.3C in Ceredigion, west Wales.

This week saw the hottest winter day in the UK since records began… twice. Many of us have been enjoying the early taste of summer, but should we, in fact, be terrified?

The sun shone, the bees buzzed, and the blossoms bloomed. For three days, T-shirt wearing Britons have delighted in the early sun. Some shops even ran out of ice cream.

But this is February. The average February temperature in the UK is 6C. On Tuesday, it was 21.2C in south-west London. This was not just the UK’s hottest ever February day (breaking a record set on Monday), but the first time a temperature above 20C has been recorded in winter.

The heat has made the ground harder and drier than it should be, with devastating effects. In the early hours of yesterday morning, firefighters were battling an “apocalyptic” wildfire on Marsden Moor in West Yorkshire. Smaller fires broke out in Edinburgh and East Sussex.

“It’s unseasonable,” said Professor David Demeritt. “And because this has been a relatively dry winter, there’s more of that fuel on the ground — everything has dried out early.”

In contrast, this time last year, Britain was gripped by the “Beast from the East”, which brought a fierce Arctic blast from Siberia. This was caused by a phenomenon called sudden stratospheric warming, which is associated with climate change.

Now, the temperature is slowly creeping down, but why was it so hot?

The warm spell is down to an unusual weather pattern that swept warm air up from North Africa. However, as the Earth gets warmer, unusual and extreme weather is becoming more frequent.

Last autumn, the UN delivered a stark warning: keep global warming below 2C or face climate devastation in communities across the planet. Coastal areas could be wiped out by rising seas. Droughts and wildfires will become more common.

In his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells says that the danger is here and growing. “We are now burning 80% more coal than we were just in the year 2000,” he writes. With every half degree of warming, societies have a 10 to 20% increased risk of armed conflict.

The book’s chapter list reads like a chilling premonition: Heat death. Dying oceans. Unbreathable air. For Wallace-Wells, the signs are already showing.

A burning question

As Greta Thunberg says, “our house is on fire”. Our first instinct is to avoid danger, and climate change threatens all life on Earth, so why aren’t we panicking? Humans are terrible at grasping the reality of long-term consequences. How can we shift our perspective? Will the increasingly weird weather be enough to open our eyes? Will it be too late?

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a huge global challenge. What difference can one person make? Is it worth trying to help? Your impact may feel small, but individuals add up. Giving up is the only way to guarantee failure, after all.

You Decide

  1. Should we feel guilty about enjoying the warm spell?
  2. Do you blame older generations for climate change?

Activities

  1. Make a list of small changes you could make in your life to reduce your impact on the climate.
  2. Imagine that you are living 100 years in the future. Write a letter telling today’s generation about how Earth has changed.

Some People Say...

“Climate change is not the concern of just one or two nations. It is an issue that affects the whole of humanity and every living being on this Earth.”

The Dalai Lama

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
After a warm weekend, temperatures peaked at over 20C in some parts of the UK on Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday parts of Britain were hotter than Malibu, Athens, Crete and Barcelona. Yesterday was still unusually hot, but not record-breaking.
What do we not know?
To what extent we can say that the warm spell is a direct sign of climate change. Martin Bowles, a Met Office meteorologist, said, “we can’t blame climate change directly because we’re talking about weather, not the climate. But it is a sign of climate change. There’s been a gradual increase of temperatures over the last 30 years so the extreme weather has also been increasing.”

Word Watch

Marsden Moor
This is part of Saddleworth Moor, where a devastating wildfire broke out last summer. The flames of this week’s fire were up to two metres tall.
Sudden stratospheric warming
As the stratosphere heats up, it can slow down the cold air spinning around the Arctic and even cause it to reverse. This meant that the UK received easterly winds from Siberia rather than the usual, warmer westerly winds from the Atlantic.
Warmer
The Earth is 1C hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution, when Western powers began burning fossil fuels for fuel. The Arctic has warmed by 3C.
2C
The Paris Climate Agreement, which has been signed by almost 200 countries, commits them to try to keep global warming to 2C above pre-industrial temperatures. The agreement’s critics say that it does not put practical measures in place to achieve this.
Wildfires
The last few years have seen a number of wildfires of increasing severity. In November, 85 people died in the worst wildfires in California’s history. There have also been deadly fires in Greece and Portugal.