An extreme heatwave has gripped Europe. Temperatures across the continent have soared to record levels as the ferocious heatwave spreads from Spain to the east. The heat has already triggered wildfires, leading to deaths and evacuations in countries that are ill-equipped to deal with extreme warm weather.
For the first time, temperatures in Britain rose above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Tuesday, sparking several fires around London, burning homes. Spain, Italy, France and Greece also suffered major wildfires.
Dubai residents and visitors to European countries relate their experiences that provide a glimpse of what it is to live in warm weather without air-conditioning.
Facing the UK summer heat
Dubai-based British expat Lissy Reid, her husband Jon and daughter Ella are in the UK for a holiday. And they are really feeling the heat. “Well the UK is melting. We had booked a train ticket but could not travel due to cancellations.”
Train services faced major disruption across Britain due to record temperatures. “The nights are hard as there is no breeze and it is very hot. Air conditioners are not common in the UK at all. So, we are really feeling the heatwave here. As expats from the UAE, we are missing being in the UAE. We don’t feel the heat or the summer.”
Staying cool in sizzling Greece
Casie Keynes-Philip, a Greek-British expat, is going to Greece in August with her three children. Temperatures in Greece are expected to soar in August. “I will be staying in a tiny village with my mother. We are lucky to have an air-conditioner at home. Our suitcase will be full of light clothing. We will spend a lot of time at the beach under the umbrella and in the ‘cold’ sea,” she said.
“The advantage of growing up in Dubai is the family are more used to the heat and adapt easily to hot days,” Keynes-Philip added.
We English have always had a ‘Goldilocks’ attitude towards the weather, and we very rarely find that conditions are ‘just right’.
A sweltering summer in Spain
After 25 years of living in Oman and then Dubai, we were used to surviving the sweltering summers within the cosseted luxury of efficient ACs, Pamela Pierrepont says. It was quite a shock to then arrive at our new home in Spain in August with no AC and as much chance of getting it installed during the month-long fiesta time as winning the National Lottery. However, we soon learned to close down persianas, order fans from Amazon, take a tepid shower and retire for a siesta soon after a languid lunch.
With the newly installed AC for this summer, life is as it was in Dubai. Temperatures here are 40 degrees plus, and friends back in the UK complain about the debilitating days where they are ‘suffering’ record high temperatures almost daily.
We English have always had a ‘Goldilocks’ attitude towards the weather, and we very rarely find that conditions are ‘just right’. However, the weather is always a conversation starter whenever we get together and something that we can all comment copiously on.
My skin used to fuse to the vinyl seat
Imran Malik, Assistant Editor
When I look back at my childhood, I am adamant that I spent it with my bottom melted to a vinyl seat. We grew up with cars and homes in the UK without air conditioning, and during summer, it was very difficult to manage. I was actually frightened of our sofa because every time I sat on it, my skin would fuse to the faux leather due to the heat. Peeling myself off was painful, to say the least.
On road trips during summer holidays, my dad would have mercy on us every once in a while and open up one of those little triangle windows to let a little air in. Not that this did much good. In fact, it probably had the same cooling effect as an asthmatic blowing at you through a straw. And when that one speaker in the dashboard started playing Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash, we took it as a sign to pull over, step out and try to cool down by grabbing a cold drink from the nearest newsagent.
Hitting the seaside was always the highlight. Brighton was the closest to us in London, but the 50-mile drive was never worth it because the beach was covered in pebbles. The sight of those small stones was upsetting to 10-year-old me, who wanted to make sandcastles.
We vowed never to go there again after a summer spent in Bournemouth. This was a 100-mile drive from our home in our rickety Datsun 280C Estate but worth the aggravation. With its golden sands and deep blue sea, Bournemouth became a family favourite. We looked forward to summer mostly because we were starved of any sunshine for the vast majority of the year. And before we knew it, the season was over.
It seemed like we would get two weeks at best of hot weather — interspersed with rain, of course — before the autumn kicked in.
Back to the present day, and the heat has really hit the fan. Temperatures are soaring into the 40s and challenging all-time records — but people are still having to cope without AC.
Here in Dubai, I have become so used to the chilled air in my car, office, apartment — literally everywhere I go — that the thought of spending summer at home fills me with fear. The family car still does not have AC, and we haven’t thrown out that sticky, plastic sofa either…
A midsummer night’s turmoil
Sadiq Shaban, Opinion Editor
As temperatures soared to record levels in Britain, I was reminded of an uncomfortable summer spent in London three years ago. My extended family lives close to the cultural treasure trove of Bankside, London. Running from east of the Blackfriars Bridge to just a little distance before the London Bridge, this is a creative minefield — but creativity was not on top of my mind during the first night at Bankside.
Hot, humid and stupendously oppressive is how I remember those nights and days. London never used to be like that. I have been to England several times, but it is different now. Call it global warming or Mother Earth giving a going over to her truant children — for not being responsible enough, perhaps.
Upon noticing my bloodshot eyes the next morning — as sleep evaded me — my cousins teased me about being too used to the comfort and luxury of Dubai. No one, except for the affluent, uses air-conditioning in the UK, they were quick to point out. So I was expected to rough it out with cousins and second cousins and stop being posh.
A well-to-do friend who lives in the posh St John’s Wood — the nearest Underground stations are St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage — had a similar story. Too hot, no coolers, no ACs. If at all I harboured any thoughts of moving in with him for a few days, those were dashed there and then. It didn’t matter if Sir Richard Branson and Imran Khan had quiet homes in St John’s Wood.
Southwark continued to be vibrant, if sweltering. With a rich literary tradition, novelists like Charles Dickens had historically made it a setting for their works. I passed by the site of The Tabard inn (featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), The White Hart Inn and The George Inn (which still survives), thinking about nothing more than a ceiling fan.
A few days on, one evening, I was pleasantly surprised to see my cousins had got a portable fan from B&Q for me. For the first time in that crazy London heat, I had a midsummer night’s dream.
How climate change drives heatwaves and wildfires
Brutal heatwaves are gripping both Europe and the United States and are forecast to dump searing heat on much of China into late August.
In addition to temperatures spiking above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), wildfires are raging across southern Europe with evacuations in towns in Italy and Greece.
The searing heat is part of a global pattern of rising temperatures, attributed by scientists to human activity. Pope Francis called on world leaders to heed the Earth’s “chorus of cries of anguish” stemming from climate change, extreme weather and loss of biodiversity.
Hotter, more frequent heatwaves
Climate change makes heatwaves hotter and more frequent. This is the case for most land regions, and has been confirmed by the UN’s global panel of climate scientists (IPCC).
Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have heated the planet by about 1.2 Celsius since pre-industrial times. That warmer baseline means higher temperatures can be reached during extreme heat events.
“Every heatwave that we are experiencing today has been made hotter and more frequent because of climate change,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London who also co-leads the World Weather Attribution research collaboration.
But other conditions affect heatwaves too. In Europe, atmospheric circulation is an important factor.
A study in the journal Nature this month found that heatwaves in Europe have increased three-to-four times faster than in other northern mid-latitudes such as the United States.
The authors linked this to changes in the jet stream — a fast west-to-east air current in the northern hemisphere.
Fingerprints of climate change
To find out exactly how much climate change affected a specific heatwave, scientists conduct “attribution studies”.
Since 2004, more than 400 such studies have been done for extreme weather events, including heat, floods and drought — calculating how much of a role climate change played in each.
This involves simulating the modern climate hundreds of times and comparing it to simulations of a climate without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, scientists with World Weather Attribution determined that a record-breaking heatwave in western Europe in June 2019 was 100 times more likely to occur now in France and the Netherlands than if humans had not changed the climate.
Heatwaves will still get worse
The global average temperature is around 1.2C warmer than in pre-industrial times. That is already driving extreme heat events.
“On average on land, heat extremes that would have happened once every 10 years without human influence on the climate are now three times more frequent,” said ETH Zurich climate scientist Sonia Seneviratne.
Temperatures will only cease rising if humans stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Until then, heatwaves are set to worsen. A failure to tackle climate change would see heat extremes escalate even more dangerously.
Countries agreed under the global 2015 Paris Agreement to cut emissions fast enough to limit global warming to 2 degree Celsius and aim for 1.5 degree Celsius, to avoid its most dangerous impacts. Current policies would not cut emissions fast enough to meet either goal.
A heatwave that occurred once per decade in the pre-industrial era would happen 4.1 times a decade at 1.5 degree Celsius of warming, and 5.6 times at 2 degree Celsius, the IPCC says.
Letting warming pass 1.5 degree Celsius means that most years “will be affected by hot extremes in the future,” Seneviratne said.
Climate change drives wildfires
Climate change increases hot and dry conditions that help fires spread faster, burn longer and rage more intensely.
In the Mediterranean, that has contributed to the fire season starting earlier and burning more land. Last year more than half a million hectares burned in the European Union, making it the blocs second-worst forest fire season on record after 2017.
Hotter weather also saps moisture from vegetation, turning it into dry fuel that helps fires to spread.
“The hotter, drier conditions right now, it just makes far more dangerous,” Copernicus senior scientist Mark Parrington said.
Countries such as Portugal and Greece experience fires most summers, and have infrastructure to try to manage them — though both have received emergency EU help this summer. But hotter temperatures are also pushing wildfires into regions not used to them, and thus less prepared to cope.
Climate change isn’t the only factor in fires
Forest management and ignition sources are also important factors. In Europe, more than nine out of 10 fires are ignited by human activities, like arson, disposable barbeques, electricity lines, or littered glass, according to EU data.
Countries, including Spain, face the challenge of shrinking populations in rural areas, as people move to cities, leaving smaller workforces to clear vegetation and avoid “fuel” for forest fires building up.
Some actions can help to limit severe blazes, such as setting controlled fires that mimic the low-intensity fires in natural ecosystem cycles, or introducing gaps within forests to stop blazes rapidly spreading over large areas.
But scientists concur that without steep cuts to the greenhouse gases causing climate change, heatwaves, wildfires, flooding and drought will significantly worsen.
“When we look back on the current fire season in one or two decades’ time, it will probably seem mild by comparison,” said Victor Resco de Dios, professor of forest engineering at Spain’s Lleida University.