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Europe is burning like it’s 2052

The extraordinary heat wave in Europe is showing what’s possible already, and what lies ahead under climate change.

A woman shelters herself from the sun and sweltering heat with an umbrella in Madrid, Spain, on July 18.
Manu Fernandez/AP
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office declared its first ever “red warning” for exceptional heat over the weekend. Meanwhile, the UK Health Security Agency raised its heat alert level to 4, triggering a national emergency. And on Tuesday, the UK broke its national record for the highest temperature ever recorded: 39.1 degrees Celsius, or 102.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Forecasters warn the numbers could climb higher.

“In this country, we’re used to treating a hot spell as a chance to go and play in in the sun,” said Penny Endersby, chief executive of the Met Office, in a statement. “This is not that sort of weather.” The heat in the UK has disrupted trains and flights. Hospitals are bracing for an influx of heat-related casualties, and Covid-19 cases are rising as well.

Across the channel, France broke more than 100 all-time heat records across the country in the past week. But just as energy demand is spiking with people desperate to cool off, the high temperatures have forced France to cut down its nuclear power output since the rivers used to cool the power plants have become too hot. Much of Europe is already dealing with a spike in energy prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led countries to reduce their use of Russian oil and gas.

A resident fights a forest fire with a shovel during a wildfire in Tabara, Spain, on July 19. Firefighters battled wildfires raging out of control in Spain and France during an extreme heat wave that authorities blamed for hundreds of deaths.
Bernat Armangue/AP

Spanish authorities estimate more than 500 people nationwide have already died from the heat through the weekend. High temperatures are fueling a spike in ozone pollution. The heat and dry weather have also created ideal conditions for wildfires, and blazes have already ignited in France, Spain, and Portugal, creating harrowing scenes of flames encroaching on homes, roads, and trains while forcing thousands to evacuate.

The recent heat wave is a reminder that disasters are rarely polite enough to wait their turn. Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and the economic stresses of inflation are making it more difficult for countries to respond to the severe weather, and compounding its toll.

The severe heat this week across Europe is unusual for the continent, but it’s not surprising. Scientists have warned for years that more frequent and intense heat waves are one of the most direct consequences of climate change, even in places used to mild weather. While the whole planet has warmed on average by about 2°F since the Industrial Revolution, that small rise in the average is leading to a large spike in extreme temperatures.

Even so, the recent heat is leading scientists to rethink just how quickly extreme temperatures could arrive. But it’s clear that more sweltering summers lie ahead for Europe.

Swimmers walk on a pier in southwestern France, under a large cloud of black smoke and ash from a wildfire consuming the thousand-year-old forest bordering the Dune du Pilat on July 18.
Sophie Garcia/AP

The recent heat wave is exposing Europe’s unique vulnerabilities

Though countries in Europe are wealthy, heat is still a major threat to people and to infrastructure. Europe’s ordinarily mild climate has meant that many homes and businesses have not invested in air conditioning. Fewer than 5 percent of homes across Europe have air conditioning, according to the International Energy Agency.

And compared to people who live in warmer climates, Europeans themselves are also less acclimated to extreme heat. That can mean people miss the warning signs of heat danger. These patterns are why heat waves are often more dangerous in cooler climates. In fact, one of the biggest predictors of the dangers of a heat wave is not how high temperatures get, but how much they deviate from the norm for an area.

Europe is also highly urbanized. About 72 percent of European Union residents live in cities, towns, and suburbs. The concrete, glass, and steel of urban environments and the relative lack of green spaces turns cities into heat islands that stay hotter than their surroundings.

People seeking relief from the heat swim in the Sky Pool, a clear acrylic swimming pool fixed between two apartment blocks in London, England, on July 17.
Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

One especially dangerous aspect of the current heat wave is how warm it’s been after sunset. The UK just broke its record for the hottest temperature recorded at night. In many parts of the world, nighttime temperatures are rising faster than daytime heat. This often leads to worse health problems because people find little relief as heat stress mounts.

“Nights are also likely to be exceptionally warm, especially in urban areas,” said Neil Armstrong, chief meteorologist at the UK Met Office, in a statement. “This is likely to lead to widespread impacts on people and infrastructure. Therefore, it is important people plan for the heat and consider changing their routines.”

Europe may face even more extreme heat in the future because of changes in the jet streams, the narrow, fast-moving bands of air in the upper atmosphere. A study published earlier this month in Nature Communications found that the jet streams are shifting in ways that amplify heat over the European continent.

So the combination of human factors, changes in regional weather patterns, and warming around the world is converging to worsen the toll of extreme heat in Europe.

A man takes advantage of relatively cooler morning hours for a run on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, on July 18.
Michael Probst/AP

Europe has been expecting more heat waves, but the current one is still alarming

Much of Europe remains haunted by the 2003 heat wave that killed more than 70,000 people. The good news is that natural disasters like heat waves are becoming less deadly around the world. Better forecasting and more tools to cope with heat have saved lives in Europe. But with disrupted travel, increasing hospital visits, and lost productivity, heat is still extracting a growing social and economic toll.

That’s why, although few Europeans have air conditioners in their homes, worries about extreme heat have been mounting for years.

In 2014, French weather presenter Évelyne Dhéliat imagined an August weather forecast for France in the year 2050 using projections from the World Meteorological Organization. She showed the kind of weather that would be likely after decades of additional warming, with temperatures rising to 109°F in southern France.

But as the French magazine L’Obs points out in the video below, much of that imagined midcentury forecast already came true in 2019:

The recent heat wave showed similar heat patterns to those projections across France. In 2020, the UK Met Office did the same exercise, creating a hypothetical weather forecast for 2050. That forecast has also come true this week:

So does this heat wave mean the weather of tomorrow is already here and that climate models underestimated what’s in store?

It’s not clear yet. Temperatures in Europe this week certainly expand the realm of what’s possible in the present and into the future. “It’s definitely extreme in terms of what’s happened historically, but we should be expecting that we’ll hit more and more extremes moving forward,” said Isla Simpson, a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

However, scientists are still trying to figure out how the current European heat wave fits into previous forecasts and whether it’s more extreme than predicted. Climate models do show that Europe is capable of reaching triple-digit temperatures in the current era, but researchers are calculating how much more likely they’ve become. The current heat wave isn’t over yet, and it will take some time to compare climate predictions to the actual results. Researchers are also investigating exactly how much human-caused climate change made it worse.

Travelers wait at a London railway station during a heat wave that led to rail and air travel delays, on July 18.
Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Climate change has already influenced the likelihood of temperature extremes in the UK,” said Nikos Christidis, a climate scientist at the UK Met Office, in a statement. “The chances of seeing 40°C [104°F] days in the UK could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence.”

In past heat waves, climate simulations struggled to anticipate the severe temperatures already manifesting in some parts of the world, like the expansive blob of heat that settled over the Pacific Northwest last year.

“It was hard for our models to produce an event that extreme even if you account for climate change,” Simpson said. “We will have to start to wonder, are we missing something, or are we just very unlucky?”

Of course, Europe isn’t the only place that’s sweating this summer. Much of the US is also facing a heat wave that has worsened wildfires and created risks of power outages, while India and Pakistan saw a massive heat wave across the region in May.

And climate change is expected to nudge future thermometers even higher. As hot as it’s already been, this is still likely to be one of the coolest summers we’re going to experience for the rest of our lives.

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