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A board warning passengers about the high temperatures and its impact on rail traffic at Euston train station, in central London, on July 19.NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images

The first record fell just before noon Tuesday when the temperature in Southern England topped 39 C. An hour later the thermometer hit 40.2 C at London’s Heathrow Airport, and by evening more than 30 communities had set new all-time highs.

Britain has never experienced 40 C temperatures, and this heat wave – stretching from London to Wales and Scotland – has been far more extensive than any previous hot spell.

Until now the hottest day on record in the U.K. was July 25, 2019, when it got up to 38.7 C in Cambridge. On Tuesday, the thermometer hit 40-plus in half a dozen cities and towns across England and reached 34.8 C in Northern Scotland. All that after a blistering Monday that saw records fall in Wales and elsewhere.

Unlike most cities in North America, Britain is ill-prepared for extreme heat. Air conditioning is virtually non-existent in homes, and everything from rail lines to highways have been built with the country’s moderate climate in mind.

The scorching heat this week has closed schools, disrupted rail service and shut down a section of a major highway after the road warped, causing ripples to appear along the surface. “No, the A14 is not being turned into a skatepark,” Cambridgeshire Police said on Facebook. “Unfortunately the road surface isn’t coping well in this heat.”

Network Rail cancelled hundreds of trains for a second day Tuesday and shut down most rail service out of London’s King’s Cross, St. Pancras and Blackfriars stations. Railway tracks can bend or buckle in extreme heat, and Network Rail said the temperature along one line reached 62 C Monday.

Explainer: Heat waves in Britain, Europe are shattering records and forcing public service cancellations. Here’s what to know

The hot air and parched land also caused dozens of fires in several cities. In London, more than 250 firefighters struggled to contain a series of grass fires in parks, woodlands and open fields. Some of the fires destroyed at least two homes in Wennington, a village east of London, as residents scrambled to evacuate.

“I think it’s fair to say that the U.K. has never seen wildfires like this before,” said Thomas Smith, an assistant professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

Most Britons heeded government warnings not to travel and stayed home. Some tried to find relief by heading to the beach. But even on the coast, the punishing sunshine offered little respite.

Britain suffering under heatwave

Land surface temperature map of Britain and parts of Ireland,

detected on Monday, July 18, 2022 by the Sentinel-3 satellite.

45

No data

40

35

30

Glasgow

Edinburgh

SCOTLAND

25

Newcastle

upon Tyne

N. IRE.

Belfast

North Sea

Liverpool

Dublin

IRELAND

ENGLAND

WALES

Swansea

London

Plymouth

English Channel

FRANCE

the globe and mail, Source: national centre for

earth observation; uiversity of leicster

Britain suffering under heatwave

Land surface temperature map of Britain and parts of Ireland,

detected on Monday, July 18, 2022 by the Sentinel-3 satellite.

45

No data

40

35

30

Glasgow

Edinburgh

SCOTLAND

25

Newcastle

upon Tyne

N. IRE.

Belfast

North Sea

Liverpool

Dublin

IRELAND

ENGLAND

WALES

Swansea

London

Plymouth

English Channel

FRANCE

the globe and mail, Source: national centre for

earth observation; uiversity of leicster

Britain suffering under heatwave

Land surface temperature map of Britain and parts of Ireland, detected on Monday, July 18, 2022

by the Sentinel-3 satellite.

45

No data

40

35

30

Glasgow

Edinburgh

SCOTLAND

25

Newcastle

upon Tyne

N. IRE.

Belfast

North Sea

Liverpool

Dublin

IRELAND

ENGLAND

WALES

Swansea

London

Plymouth

English Channel

FRANCE

the globe and mail, Source: national centre for earth observation; uiversity of leicster

“I’ve never known anything like this,” said Tracy Wojtowych-Mills as she stood in a baking parking lot in Hunstanton, a coastal resort town northeast of London. “It’s only going to get hotter.”

Ms. Wojtowych-Mills spent Tuesday at the Hunstanton beach with her partner, her daughter and her nine-month-old grandson. “I think this is going to happen more often,” she said. “I think something has changed.”

Down the beach, Lisa Ketteringham was enjoying a slight breeze off the North Sea, which helped offset the blazing sun, at least a little.

“I’m loving it,” she said with a smile – although she quickly added that she’d come to the beach because her home in nearby Wisbech was unbearable. “There was just no breeze,” she said. Even the fans she’d bought provided little help. “They were just blowing hot air everywhere, so I turned them off.”

  • Firefighter trucks burn during a wildfire on the Mont d'Arrees, outside Brasparts, western France.LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

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Her friend Stewart Baxter lives near Cambridge and drives a minibus that takes children with disabilities to school. The minibus has air conditioning, he said, but it isn’t sufficient, and driving the children had been almost impossible this week. Thankfully, the school closed Tuesday. “I think it is climate change,” Mr. Baxter said as he looked out over the sea. “I think we’ve got to adapt to it and prepare for it.”

That was the message climate scientists tried to drill home Tuesday. The heat wave should be a wake-up call, they said, about climate change and the need to modify buildings and cities to cope with temperature extremes.

“Even in our current climate a record breaker of above 40 C is thought to be extremely rare, but as our climate warms we expect to see these kinds of exceedances every couple of years,” said Dann Mitchell, a professor of climate science at the University of Bristol.

“In the short term, we need to learn lessons from what has happened to our infrastructure and in our buildings and urgently update our emergency plans and responses,” said Nigel Arnell, a professor of climate system science at the University of Reading.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is stepping down in September, urged those seeking to replace him as Conservative party leader to stick to the government’s commitment of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “Who can doubt that we were right to be the first major economy to go for net zero? It may be sometimes unfashionable to say this but it is the right thing to do,” he said Tuesday.

The three remaining leadership candidates – former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and International Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt – have pledged to abide by the 2050 target, but there has been growing pressure within the party to modify the commitment, given the soaring cost of living. In response, Ms. Truss and Ms. Mordaunt have said they would at least temporarily scrap green levies on energy bills to provide relief to consumers.

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