Every summer, thousands of British city slickers flee to the countryside to enjoy the fabulous “green and pleasant land” once praised by the poet William Blake. But Jessica Dillard and her mother fled London to this picturesque village in the Cotswolds countryside for a very different reason.
“We came here because of the air-conditioned hotel,” she said simply.
The UK is experiencing a historic heat wave. On Tuesday, the country provisionally recorded a temperature of nearly 104.4 degrees at London Heathrow Airport, beating the record of 101.8 degrees set just three years ago.
And it’s not just Britain. Some parts of the continent are in the grip of heat like no other.
Last week, the inland Portuguese city of Piñao, near Porto, experienced 116 degrees Celsius. At the Madrid Barajas airport, the temperature recently rose to 108 degrees for the first time. In other parts of Spain and in France early wildfire season along with intense heat, over 1,100 people died.
The scorching temperatures in the UK are a shock to Americans, who often travel to the country to escape the heat at home, where temperatures are becoming more frequent.
“I grew up in California, but even here I feel hot,” said Veronica Miller, who came to Chipping Campden from Texas. “I was here a few years ago in July and was wearing a light jacket. So yes, this year it feels different.”
Shops, kindergartens and pubs across Britain were closed. “Sorry, the store is closed Monday-Tuesday due to weather and lack of staff due to COVID. We will re-open on Wednesday,” reads a handwritten sign on the door of an Oxfam thrift store in Hackney, East London.
Train operators canceled some flights and informed passengers of possible disruptions due to deformed tracks. Electricity went out in parts of London early in the day on Tuesday, but it was soon restored.
As the Sun tabloid put it on its front page, “Britain is melting.”
Heat wave culprit: Rising temperatures due to climate change combined with hot air blowing northward from Africa.
“I have been a qualified meteorologist for 10 years and have been telling people about 41 C. [106 degrees Fahrenheit] in the UK does not seem real,” said Luke Miall of the UK Met Office. On Monday, the office recorded the UK’s highest overnight temperature of 77 degrees, beating the previous record set in 1990 and making trying to sleep a torment.
The agency released its first ever red alert this week warning not only vulnerable Britons but the entire population of the dangers of extreme heat, including “potential serious illness or danger to life”.
In a country where few houses have air conditioning and infrastructure like railroads were built two centuries ago, the sticky and hot air has caused havoc. One of Britain’s biggest airports, London’s Luton, popular with budget travelers, briefly closed on Monday as it buckled in the heat.
“Flights have been temporarily suspended to allow for necessary repairs to the runway after high surface temperatures caused a small portion to rise,” the airport said in a statement.
Sky News on Monday reported that the ground at the British Royal Air Force base had been fried to the point where tar stuck to workers’ feet. The Department of Defense did not confirm the report, but tweeted that “aircraft are using alternative airfields in accordance with a long-established plan” due to “extreme temperatures.”
Around London, despite officials warning residents to stay at home and offices reintroducing work-from-home policies, hordes of Britons have fled to the beaches and the countryside in search of a little respite from city temperatures – although the difference was only a few degrees.
“Why not make a holiday out of it?” said Dillard, 36, who enjoyed Chipping Campden primarily by not going out into the countryside at all and instead using the air conditioning in her hotel.
Such luxury is rare. Less than 1% of UK homes have air conditioning. Only about 40% of the vast London Underground system is climate controlled.
While the heat wave is expected to start to ease on Tuesday evening, experts are warning Britons to prepare for hotter days and sustained high temperatures in the future, possibly this summer and certainly in the coming years.
“We’re having a very strong heatwave right now and all the evidence we have is that it’s going to get worse,” Nigel Arnell, a professor at the University of Reading, told the BBC.
The rest of Europe is also under scrutiny.
France recently recorded the hottest May on record. hit again in June with the heat which spread west to Spain and east to Italy. Poland also experienced unusually high temperatures. Fires broke out in the Balkans. In Croatia, an eruption occurred last week near the seaside resort town of Zadar.
“We don’t just notice climate change – it catches our eye,” Jean-Luc Gleizes, president of the Gironde region near Bordeaux in France, told the Financial Times. The fire is raging in a pine forest in the southwest of the country. More than 15,000 vacationers have been evacuated.
In Spain, firefighters were sent to Castile, Castile and León, Galicia, Andalusia and Extremadura as the flames engulfed the land.
“Climate change is obviously killing,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who was in Extremadura, the southwestern region bordering Portugal, on Monday. “It’s killing people, it’s killing our ecosystem, it’s killing biodiversity.”
In London, where cold and dark winters regularly call on volunteers and city workers to help homeless and impoverished residents, Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a similar heatwave emergency warning this week. On Tuesday, city workers handed out water and sunscreen and gave directions to public fountains.
A photograph of a Buckingham Palace worker serving a sip of water to one of the guards wearing a traditional bear hat in sweltering heat has made its way to websites and newspapers around the world. Palace guards are healthy young men who stand upright and motionless for hours.
“This ongoing heatwave could be dangerous for everyone,” Khan said.