Record heatwave strikes on summer solstice

Letting off steam: Studies found that test scores decline in temperatures above 22°C. © Getty

Temperatures soared across Europe and the USA, with Britain recording its hottest day in over 40 years. But is the heat affecting the economy? And is it better to be too hot or too cold?

Roads melted, planes were grounded and people flocked to Stonehenge to worship the sun. It might not have been the end of days, but it certainly felt as hot as Hades as temperatures soared across the Europe and the USA yesterday — the longest day of the year, or summer solstice, in the Northern Hemisphere.

In London, suited bankers and ermine-clad lords alike suffered through the hottest June day since 1976 as mercury hit 34°C.

In Cambridgeshire the council had to grit melting roads after five days above 30°C; trains were delayed for fear of buckling tracks; and festival-goers were urged to bring water to Glastonbury.

But June was bustin’ out all over, as Rodgers and Hammerstein once wrote, with Paris hitting highs of 37°C yesterday and Madrid breaking an all-time record at 40.3°C on Saturday.

Even so, Europe had it easy compared to the US south-west. Forty-three flights were cancelled in Phoenix, Arizona as the heat approached a whopping 49°C, the hottest in 22 years. In extreme heat the air gets thinner, making it unsafe for some planes to fly.

Roads cracked in California, while there were also power outages in some parts of the state. A local radio station in Phoenix even gave out free booties for dogs to prevent their paws getting burnt on hot pavements.

Even away from these extremes, it can feel hard to get much work done on a lazy summer’s day.

In fact, studies have shown that test scores and task performance decline as the temperature rises above 22°C. Beyond this level, scientists say, the brain has to work harder to get rid of excess heat.

On a broader scale, hotter countries tend to have lower productivity and gross domestic product. A 2009 study by MIT economists found that hotter countries are on average between 1.2% and 1.9% poorer per extra degree of mean annual temperature.

Even in the USA, the milder north is richer than the hotter south, controlling 70% of the economy.

But money isn’t everything, and people flock to warm places for holidays and when they retire. Which is really the better place to live?

Hot debate

It’s better to be cold, say some. Colder countries are better off, and you don’t get droughts, or wildfires like those which killed over 60 people in Portugal last week. You can wrap up to stay warm in the cold, but there is only so much you can do in the heat, especially if you have to wear formal clothes to work.

You must be kidding, say others, give me hot weather any day. Extreme cold is much more unpleasant, and actually kills more people than extreme heat. It is also cheaper to stay cool than it is to stay warm. During this hot weather, go and watch children playing in a fountain and tell me they are not happy.

You Decide

  1. Do you prefer hot or cold weather?
  2. Why do you think hot countries are poorer than cold ones?

Activities

  1. Produce a leaflet on how to stay safe in very hot weather.
  2. Research an example of extreme weather and prepare a short presentation on it and its effects for the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“Exams shouldn’t be held in the summer because it’s too hot to concentrate.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We are seeing the hottest weather in the USA and Europe for some time. NHS England is urging people to stay hydrated and UK police have put out warnings after three people drowned in separate incidents whilst trying to cool down in a lake, a reservoir and the sea. Even Royal Ascot relaxed its strict dress code to allow men to take off their jackets due to the heat.
What do we not know?
Whether the current heatwave is caused by climate change, although scientists have warned that the phenomenon is causing a tendency towards more extreme weather at both ends of the spectrum.

Word Watch

Stonehenge
The neolithic monument in Wiltshire is opened to the public on both the summer and winter solstice, traditionally pagan days of celebration.
Ermine-clad lords
The Queen’s Speech in the UK Parliament meant lords had to dress in traditional ermine cloaks and wigs. A heavily dressed yeoman fainted at the end of the ceremony due to the heat.
1976
There were nine weeks of sunshine, with temperatures exceeding 35°C for five days in a row. The hottest temperature recorded was 35.9°C on July 3rd.
Rodgers and Hammerstein
June Is Burstin’ Out All Over is a song from the 1945 musical Carousel, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Together they created a host of successful Broadway shows.
Gross domestic product
Commonly abbreviated to GDP, this represents the value of everything a country produces.
MIT
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known as one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Portugal
Three days of national mourning were declared after 64 people died in wildfires thought to have been caused by lightning.

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