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24 November 2020

'Invisible' heatwaves pose a much greater risk than most Britons recognise, new research finds

Despite the increased frequency and severity of heatwaves in the UK our response is inadequate, in part due to the risk being invisible.

Heatwave in the UK

Three UK heatwaves - in June, July and August this year - were responsible for 2 556 excess deaths, according to a report released by Public Health England last week. These record numbers indicate that the UK lacks an adequate strategy to help society cope with rising summer temperatures due to climate change.

The lack of urgency to tackle rising temperatures can be attributed to the unseen effects of heatwaves, claims a new study by the University of Reading and King’s College London.

The researchers suggest that comparatively less deadly extreme weather events such as floods and storms receive more media coverage, and generate more public concern, due to their visible impact on our environment. As Dr James Porter, co-author of the study explains:

Yes, warmer weather provides an opportunity for a BBQ or sunbathing, but we must not forget that thousands of people are dying, and the UK Government must act now.

Dr James Porter

King’s data shows that whereas floods killed an average of four people a year in the UK between 2000-2014, the August 2020 heatwave alone accounted for 1 734 deaths.

In addition to the health impacts, heatwaves damage our infrastructure, hinder our farming and reduce our productivity – in 2010 a heatwave cost the UK economy £770m in lost staff days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week announced his 10-point plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, allocating new funding to tackling climate change and doubling spending on flood response. Although welcomed, the authors of this study argue that the spending on heatwave planning and relief needs to increase significantly to be comparable to investment in flooding. As Dr Porter notes:

If policymakers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to manage heatwaves, more research is needed into the risks posed to each country, and that research must go beyond health issues and focus on how we build too.

Dr James Porter

At the same time, preventing temperatures from rising altogether should remain a priority and the researchers urge government to allocate more budget to curbing climate change. As Professor Hannah Cloke, co-author of the report, says:

“We must also spend more on prevention as well as cure. Cutting carbon emissions faster and providing better warnings ahead of heatwaves will have further benefits than just getting used to the heat.”

In this story

Dr James Porter

Senior Lecturer in Environment, Science and Policy Education