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Heatwave UK: What should People and Companies Do?

What are heatwaves, and how are they impacting the UK's society and businesses? What can you and your company do to cope?
Business
2023-04-26T00:00:00.000Z
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The U.K. isn't exactly famed for its bright blue skies and hot weather - even the summer months can leave a lot to be desired, with cloudy days (or weeks) and rainfall not unusual occurrences. But in recent years the UK has started to experience a shift in its typical weather patterns, with the summer of 2022 seeing some of the most widespread and intense heatwaves on record - it even reached 40 degrees Celsius in some areas!

Experts predict that extreme periods of extreme heat are likely to become increasingly common during summer months across the UK.

Which begs the question: in a country that's not used to - and unprepared for - periods of such intense heat, how will citizens and companies cope? 

U.K. Heatwaves: What's happening?

The UK Met Office has confirmed that the summer of 2022 was officially the hottest since records began in 1884, with it's hottest day reading 40.2 degrees Celsius on the thermometer - the previous record was 38.7 degrees Celsius, recorded in 2019.

To put into context just how bizarre these high temperatures are for the United Kingdom, typical summer temperatures in the U.K. average between 9 and 18 degrees Celsius (equivalent to 48 and 64) degrees Fahrenheit, with maximum temperatures of around 30 degrees.

👉 In fact, previously, any temperature above thirty degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) was considered to be a heatwave in the United Kingdom. 

However, in recent years we've seen a change to summer weather temperatures - gone is the windy weather and generally unsettled conditions that we're used to seeing, and in its place are extended periods of extreme heat! In 2022 for example, summer temperatures were well above the average, at five degrees Celsius higher than usual – and this is causing growing concern.

What constitutes a heatwave depends on the geographic location and their average temperatures. In the UK for example, a heatwave can be declared after 3 or more consecutive days where daily maximum temperatures meet or exceed 25 degrees celsius. In the US however, a heatwave means that maximum temperatures need to reach above 32 degrees celsius, whereas, in India this is as high as 40 degrees celsius!

The UK is now experiencing the effects of climate change and global warming first hand. Periods of extreme heat are predicted to become commonplace (as are periods of heavy rain and other extreme weather evens such as coastal gales and storms). It's forcing the UK Government to consider the question: how do we prepare for the increasing impacts of the changing climate? 

As more and more dismiss the grave scenario of climate change, global temperatures are continuing to rise – and global surface temperatures could even hit 3°C within the next few years.

And the extreme temperatures aren't just a risk to public health – they can also have devastating effects on historical landmarks and UK nature as well.

In 2022, during the UK heatwave, firefighters struggled to put out a massive fire in a field a mere two miles away from the historical site of Stonehenge - a world famous monument that was built over 5,000 years ago without the assistance of modern technology.

Why are so many heatwaves happening?

Heatwaves a normal part of the weather system. A heatwave occurs when there is high pressure in the atmosphere which forces hot air down, trapping it near the ground. The high pressure system is essentially a barrier that prevents the hot air from rising. This also means that rain is unable to form, which increases the likelihood of drought. The weather pattern is only broken when a low pressure system moves through to take its place and settled conditions re establish.

In mid-latitude countries (including the UK and the USA), the Polar Front Jet Stream determines where high pressure will occur. Made up of a system of very strong winds, the stream travels from west to east. The jet stream doesn't occur in a straight line, but instead forms a sort of wave. Areas of low pressure sit in the steam's troughs, and high pressure forms at its peaks. When the jet stream's troughs and peaks are amplified these areas of low and high pressure become slow moving which is why heatwaves can form and linger - persisting for weeks and even months.

Are the numerous heatwaves a product of global warming and climate change?

Recent attribution studies provide reasonable evidence that the cause of the UK's unusual heatwaves is indeed climate change. Global warming has pushed up average atmospheric temperatures which mean that heatwaves are more likely, and more extreme. Unfortunately, these extreme temperatures are only expected to increase throughout the course of the century – with the worst heatwaves in the UK predicted to occur in southern England  

In fact, climate change has made high temperatures and heatwaves in the U.K. up to ten times more likely – even without taking into account continued human activity which will continue to warm our climate and wreak havoc on weather systems around the world.

This is because extremely high temperatures that provoke heatwaves are a direct cause of shifting global weather patterns, which are rapidly fluctuating due to climate change. The intensity and frequency of these heatwaves is due to climate change itself, and since climate change is not currently on track to improve we can't expect to see any stabilisation in weather patterns.

Even with the current policies and daily measures people take to reduce emissions, it seems that these high temperatures won't easily be mitigated – extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms, strong winds, and periods of heavy rain (which create risk of flash flooding) are likely to continue. 

How do numerous, excessive heatwaves impact human health?

Heatwaves aren't just detrimental to the environment, they're also really bad for overall human health.

The continued global predicament of climate change is a real threat to human health, and countries that traditionally haven't had to worry about severe heat are now being faced with this new challenge.

In the summer of 2022, the MET office (also known as the British Weather Services) issued its first ever Level 4 warning for extreme heat which prompted the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to declare a 'national heat emergency' (aka. a heat health alert) - the first time this has ever happened in the UK. They warned of significant threat to human health - even amongst the fit and healthy.

Excessive, intensified heatwaves can provoke significant health issues, and in some events – even death. Some of the negative health impacts of heat waves include heat strokes, heat exhaustion, cardiovascular issues, and heat related respiratory problems.

Heatwaves are often referred to as silent killer, or a hidden killer. The most menacing potential health effect of these excessive heatwaves is heat stroke. 

👉 Heat stroke happens when your body is no longer able to regulate its own temperature, resulting in a spike in body temperature where ultimately – your body is unable to cool itself down.

The elderly, those with chronic diseases, outdoor workers, and low-income communities or developing countries are considered to be high risk groups when it comes to suffering from the worst effects of hot weather - particularly where is prolonged exposure (ie. exposure to hot weather over a prolonged period).

Heatwaves can also cause respiratory problems due to the accentuated prevalence of harmful air pollutants when temperatures are higher than usual.

In 2022, we saw first hand just how deadly heatwaves can be. Between 2000 and 2019, South Asia saw over 110,000 excess heat related deaths per year. And in the US, heatwaves are responsible for more deaths than flooding and tornados.

In 2022 the UK also experienced first hand, the health impacts of such extreme periods of heat. So much so that the UK Health Security Agency issued a heat health alert. The alert is designed to remind UK citizens of the risk to human health presented by the severe heat and serves as a reminder for people to take precautionary measures such as staying hydrated, wearing suncream, and sticking to the shade.

How is the heatwave impacting business?

Heatwaves aren't just a threat to human health, they also impact businesses, the most affected being the agriculture sector.

Extended periods of severe heat can severely affect crop health and yield. Heatwaves increase the risk of drought and cater scarcity, which can mean that farmers struggle to adequately irrigate their fields.

And it's not just crops that suffer - worker productivity also declines during heatwaves. Since outdoor workers are at an increased risk of suffering from heat exhaustion, the pace of work has to be slowed down. This isn't limited just to planting and harvesting crops, though – think of any typical outdoor summer business. None of these can operate at the capacity or efficiency that they are meant to during a heat wave. 

Even if you don't work in an outdoor sector, employees are still generally less productive in extreme temperatures. A lot of historical buildings in the UK lack air conditioning which can make indoor spaces uncomfortable to work in.

How can a company protect both its business and employees during a heatwave?

Employers can't change the temperature outside, but they can monitor the safety and well-being of their employees.

Employers should seek to consistently evaluate the comfort of their employees not only as a liability, but also for the sake of productivity. Additional precautions should be taken for employees who are considered to be high risk individuals: for example, if they are pregnant, suffer from underlying conditions that make them more prone to having a heat stroke, or those who take medications that could prevent them from regulating their own body temperature.

If employees are working from an office, a strong supply of water and air conditioning should be provided.  Also, if possible – eschew the requirement for a dress code during a heat wave: as some business attire can only aggravate the already existing effects of someone suffering from extreme temperatures. 

If possible, give employees the option of work remotely from their home in order to avoid crowded, over-heated public transportation that could cause them to arrive at the office already exhausted.

What are the best tips for managing your well-being during a heatwave?

Being prepared is everything when it comes to heatwaves. And since the summer heatwaves look like they're here to stay – what are the most important and effective measures you can take to lessen discomfort and protect your health?

Look out for one another

First of all, it's important to watch out for people who may have an increased risk of suffering from a heat stroke or other heat related health condition. So, make sure to check in on your elderly neighbours, friends, and family with underlying conditions that could make them more susceptible to the impacts of severe heat – especially any of those that qualify in this category that also live alone.

Equally, if you don't live with anyone, it's important to stay connected during a heatwave. Text or call your friends and neighbours to let them know how you're doing or if you need anything, as it's important to not exhaust yourself mentally or physically. 

Keep your home cool

Whenever inside, it's imperative to block out any direct sunlight to avoid more heat coming into the home whenever possible. Close any windows that get a lot of sunlight to ensure moderate stability in the temperature of your own home.

Avoid exercise

It's not often that you're told to avoid any form of exercise but during a heatwave it's best to avoid exerting too much energy.

Exercise can lead to dehydration in extreme heat and also puts you at risk of heat related health conditions such as heat exhaustion.

Stay indoors

You might be tempted to get out and make the most of the sunshine (after all, in the UK we're used to the nice weather being quickly replaced by unsettled conditions and rain), but resist the temptation. It's best to stay inside with central cooling or if possible, air conditioning during a heatwave – but if going out is necessary, strive to break up your outdoor time by spending time in a cool space.

The strongest hours of the sun are between 11AM and 3PM; so wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat if you absolutely must go outside during these hours.

Use AC or a fan

If you don't have an air cooling system in your home, use a fan – but not if the temperature is above 35°C.

This would only accentuate the heat because it allows the hot air to disperse, and won't actually help to regulate your body temperature. Also, avoid fanning yourself – doing so will only create more energy in your body and in turn, more heat.

Hydrate

It's easy to get dehydrated during a heat wave, even if you drink enough water. And while you might be used to enjoying a morning coffee, during periods of severe heat it's best to replace this with a glass of cool water.

Why? Caffeine, found in coffee and energy drinks, as well as alcohol – dehydrate you. It's best to only stick to water, and avoid any sugary drinks like juice that can also easily dehydrate you.

Prepare

Check the long range forecast (the MET office's website is a good place to start) and prepare for extended periods of heat.

This includes: making sure that your fridge, freezer and air conditioners are functioning; stocking up on food and medicine for you and your pets; ensuring that you have access to sufficient levels of drinking water; prepping your home wherever possible, for example by installing blinds, curtains or shutters.

Can we prevent more heatwaves like the heatwave in the U.K. from happening?

The only way we can begin to reduce the severity of these heatwaves is if we tackle the root of the problem causing the heatwaves: global warming. 

Unless we curb global temperature rises, heatwaves are only going to get worse. They're widely expected to not only occur more frequently but also to produce more extreme maximum temperatures.

If we want to avoid the effects that a heatwave can have on the economy, humanity, and historical landmarks – we have to make a cognisant effort to reduce our emissions and change our lifestyles to protect the future of our planet. 

What about Greenly?

If reading this article about the heatwave in the U.K. and what your company should do in the midst of rising global temperatures has made you interested in reducing your carbon emissions to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

Click here to learn more about Greenly and how we can help you reduce your carbon footprint. 

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