Britain may roast in temperatures exceeding 104°F every three to four years by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, Met Office warns

  • Met Office predicts temperatures 104°F and over will be reached every 3.5 years
  • The UK recorded its hottest temperature ever in Cambridge in July 2019 – 101.7°F
  • But this could occur regularly due to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions

Britain may roast in temperatures exceeding 104°F (40°C) every three and a half  years by 2100 under continued greenhouse gas emissions, forecasters warn. 

Mathematical models created by the Met Office suggest emissions are increasing the likelihood of extremely warm days in the UK, particularly in the southeast.   

Temperatures above 95°F (35°C), meanwhile, could be reached every day by the end of this century, the models reveal.

The UK recorded its hottest temperature ever just last year – 101.7°F (38.7°C) at Cambridge Botanic Garden on July 25. 

Met Office researchers had therefore wondered whether temperatures would ever exceed 104°F in the future, and, if so, how often. 

Previous research provides strong evidence that such extremes are becoming more frequent and intense under the influence of human-caused climate change, due to the burning of fossil fuels and other carbon-belching activity. 

Maps showing the ‘return time’ – the frequency with which temperatures occur – for warmest daytime temperatures going above 86°F (30°C) (panels a–d), 95°F (35 C) (e–h) and 104°F (40°C) (i–l) in the natural climate (panels a, e, i), the present climate (b, f, j), and the climate of the late 21st century simulated with the RCP 4.5 (c, g, k) and RCP 8.5 scenarios (d, h, l).

The UK’s national weather service already predicted 2020 to be one of hottest years on record, with heatwaves this summer that could kill more than 1,000 people. 

‘Intensification of hot extremes has continued unabated in recent decades, posing a threat to human health and bringing forth a raft of further socio-economic impacts,’ the research team, led by Met Office senior scientist Dr Nikolaos Christidis, say in Nature Communications.

‘Europe is gearing up for more frequent and intense heatwaves and while the UK has not yet borne the brunt of extreme continental heat, its summer temperatures are decidedly on the rise.

Image a shows the UK average warmest daytime temperatures from Met Office observations (black line) worked out from simulations with 16 CMIP5 models with all climatic forcings, incluidng human-made greenhouse gases (red lines) and natural forcings only (blue lines), which include only volcanic aerosol emissions and changes in the solar irradiance. The observed value in 2019 is marked with a cross. Simulations of future years follow the RCP 4.5 scenario. Image b) shows a map of the warmest daytime temperatures during 1960–2019 computed with Met Office data

‘The need to understand how the likelihood of extremely hot temperatures is changing under the anthropogenic effect on the climate is pressing and essential to decision-makers planning the UK’s adaptation strategy.’ 

Dr Christidis and his colleagues estimated changes in the likelihood of extreme temperatures occurring locally in the UK in a series of modelling experiments. 

The team looked at the future climate scenarios predicted by Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5) and RCP4.5.

RCP8.5 is the highest level of projected greenhouse gas emissions and RCP4.5 features less intense emissions that span over a long period of time. 

The change in frequency of exceeding different temperature thresholds depends strongly on the emissions scenario, with higher emissions leading to these events occurring more often over larger areas.

Pictured: A view over the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, where the record-breaking temperature was recorded in July 2019. 

Temperatures above 95°F (35°C) are becoming increasingly common, especially in the southeast, and could occur every year by the end of the century, compared to every five years today. 

Northern parts of the UK rarely experience extreme warm temperatures today and the worst of the recent heatwaves have impacted the south the hardest.

But in a future climate scenario even northern UK is likely to see temperatures exceeding 86°F (30°C) up to once a decade by 2100. 

Currently, anywhere in the UK registering temperatures of 104°F (40°C) or more is extremely rare and estimated to only occur once every 100 to 300 years. 

However, this could change to every 15 years under a medium-emissions scenario, and every 3.5 years under high emissions by the end of the century.

‘Our study demonstrates that human-caused climate change has set hot-day extremes in the UK on a course towards temperatures that would be too high to be observed in the natural climate,’ the Met Office team say. 

The Met Office confirmed the figure, recorded at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens last year, was higher than the 38.5°C (101.3F) seen in Kent in August 2003. Temperatures above 35°C could be reached every day by the end of this century, Met Office research claims

‘As the warming continues, new records are expected in coming decades, with the most severe extremes likely to occur in the southeast of the UK.’   

However, if emissions are reduced in line with the Paris climate agreement, which aims to hold the global average temperature increase to below 3.6ºF (2°C), the frequency of temperatures 104°F and over would be lower. 

Researchers say their analysis can help the UK plan its resilience to heat extremes over the next few decades.  

As well as providing the UK with the hottest ever temperature in Cambridge, July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded globally after 140 years of record-keeping. 

July 2019’s global temperature was 1.71°F (0.95°C) warmer than the 20th century average for July, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Met Office revealed earlier this month that May 2020 was UK’s sunniest calendar month on record and the driest May on record. 

This was mostly due to an extended period of high pressure centred over or close to the UK that suppressed the development of clouds and rainfall over the UK, it said.   

Last month was also the warmest May on record with global temperatures 1.13°F (0.63°C) above average, according to the European Union’s climate change monitor. 

Public Health England revealed there were an estimated 892 ‘excess deaths’ among people aged over 65 in the summer months of 2019 – a figure that could reach 1,000 once this summer. 

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution

Emissions

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

Particulates

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 

 

Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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