U.K. ill-prepared for scorching summer; heat wave blamed for hundreds of deaths

LONDON — The Globe and Mail

Enviroment Agency Fisheries Officer Laura Bullock looks on the dry bed of the River Teme for stranded fish near Brampton Bryan, central England, July 18, 2013. The Met Office raised its heatwave warning for south-west England and the West Midlands to "level three", local media reported. (DARREN STAPLES/REUTERS)

When the temperature in July hits 30 C in Canada, most people take it in stride. Not so in Britain where a six-day heat wave has sent the country into a near frenzy.

Ambulance calls in some areas are up 20 per cent, hospital waiting rooms are jammed with people suffering sunburns and heat stroke, nearly two dozen grass fires have broken out in parks across London, and part of the Waterloo subway station had to be shut down because the extreme heat buckled the track. Most alarmingly, an estimated 650 people have died as a result of the soaring temperatures.

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This is the longest stretch of 30-degree days in seven years and the thermometer in some cities has reached 32 C. While that is still a ways off the record high of 38 C set in 2003, this month has been so hot and sunny it is on track to be England’s driest July since 1766.

Things have gotten serious enough for the national weather service, known as the Met Office, to issue a “Level 3” heat health alert for much of the country. That’s one level below a national emergency.

Britons are ill-prepared for summer heat and almost no one saw this scorcher coming. July temperatures are normally around 21 C in England and air conditioning is rare. The country endured one of the coldest, wettest springs on record this year and the early forecast was for a cool summer. Instead it has been unexpectedly dry and boiling, at least by British standards.

The heat has been the talk of the country and newspapers have devoted special sections on how to keep cool – put your pillow in the fridge was one tip. The BBC joined in and quoted one expert who suggested people consider “wearing looser clothes, like the robes favoured by the Bedouin.”

If all that wasn’t enough, a group of researchers released a study that said 650 people had died because of the heat wave. “Our previous studies have shown that as temperatures rise above a certain threshold, the risk of death increases,” said lead researcher Ben Armstrong, a professor in epidemiological statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a world-leading centre for global health.

He added that the toll was derived from a review of death rates over a 14-year period, which showed premature deaths increased when the temperature rose above a certain threshold, for example 25 C in London. Roughly two-thirds of those who have died in the current hot spell are people over the age of 75, Prof. Armstrong said.

When asked how he is coping with the hot weather, Prof. Armstrong laughed and said he has curtailed his bicycling. “But I’m only 63, so I’m not too worried,” he added.

The Met Office said the hot weather was due to a high pressure system that has been hovering over Britain for days. And it’s showing no sign of moving. Temperatures are forecast to remain above normal into next week and there is no rain in sight. “It’s very unusual to get hot weather in the U.K.,” said Met spokeswoman Lindsay Mears. “We’ve been getting a huge, huge, huge number of calls.”

So how is she and other staff at the Met beating the heat? “We’ve got air conditioning,” she said. “But when we go out the door, it feels like we are in another country.”

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