As the Met Office reports, record-breaking summer temperatures are about 30 times more likely to occur due to the impacts of climate change. Aside from the everyday discomforts, heatwaves also pose significant threats, potentially leading to large economic costs, population displacement and loss of life.
"Our research highlights that the UK is underprepared for heatwaves despite the death toll associated with them and the range of impacts on all part of lives from schools to agriculture,” said Chloe Brimicombe, Heatwave Hazard PhD Researcher at the University of Reading.
Researchers at the University of Reading point out that although ‘urgent action’ has been called for to address heatwaves, the problem of overheating is still prevalent in both new and old housing. What’s more, the focus tends to be on people’s homes, whereas there are many other types of buildings where people spend considerable amounts of time, like offices. High temperatures in buildings hinder people’s wellbeing and productivity, in addition to posing health risks.
Regardless of the prevalence of heatwaves, “upwards of 20% UK buildings exceed the maximum thermal comfort limit for a normal UK summer, without additional extreme heat,” according to the study.
How do heatwaves put people at risk?
Extreme heat poses a threat to both buildings and the people inside them. According to the British Geological Survey (BGS), hotter and drier summers make ground under houses shrink and crack, putting millions of homes at an increased risk of subsidence. In addition, there’s the risk of internal overheating of some buildings. Traditionally constructed high-rise flats are particularly at risk, as they can lack insulation and natural airflow.
In England, the NHS reports 2000 heat-related deaths every year, on average. The most vulnerable groups are the youngest (babies), the oldest, and the people with serious health issues. The NHS list the main risks of a heatwave as dehydration, overheating, and heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Although people are often warned about spending too much time out in the sun, it’s important to keep in mind that inside temperatures can sometimes exceed the outside temperature in certain buildings and conditions.
Brimicombe et al. from the University of Reading add that risk assessment of heatwaves often focuses on public health issues, overlooking various other risks. For example, in relation to agriculture or transportation. High temperatures tend to have an impact on all walks of life, but many of the risks can remain largely invisible.
What can be done?
The healthcare and building/infrastructure sectors have been proactive in developing policies, plans and guidance to tackle the risk of heatwaves in the UK, but a lot of work remains to be done.
The UK Climate Change Committee has warned against the current lack of preparation and highlighted the need for increased government action. Brimicombe from the University of Reading also highlighted the need for a “cross-sector plan to address the risk of heat through research-evidenced policy supported by sufficient funding.”