Too Hot to Handle.
But we had Better Get Used to It
IAN SIMPLE / The Guardian (UK) 9aug03
Cavemen coped better with extreme weather than modern
So what can we do?
It was the week Britain learned it cannot cope with hot weather. The railways were the first to feel the strain, but the chaos soon spread. Flights were delayed as planes sought extra fuel, while the soaring temperatures brought havoc to the everyday running of courts, zoos and tourist attractions. Even the Treasury found the sunny spell too hot to handle. If the vast majority of scientists are to be believed, we are going to have to get used to coping with hot spells. It is time, they say, we took a long hard look at what the climate has in store for us and learnt the best ways to deal with it.
Worst affected were the railways. Steel rails expand as they soak up heat, and eventually bulge out like a plastic ruler pushed from both ends. The danger led to speed restrictions of 60mph across much of the south-east. Over the past three years Network Rail discovered an average of 33 rails a year which had bulged out in the heat. By the end of last month this year's total had reached 91.
If getting to and from work was miserable, life at the office was not much better. Air conditioning struggled to cope. In Leicester, two trials were put on hold because the air conditioning was not up to the job. At the Treasury staff were sent home early rather than frazzle at their desks.
The heat also hit tourist attractions, with the National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham calling in an emergency delivery of snow from an indoor skiing centre to cool down its otters. The London Eye was shut down for fear people would bake inside its greenhouse-like clear pods.
And all after just a few days of continuous sunshine. Part of the problem is the range of weather we get in Britain, according to Andy Yeatman at the met office. "We're not the hottest, we're not the coldest and we're not the wettest. But what we do get is lots of different weather. So rather than having an infrastructure that has to cope with one kind of extreme weather, we have to cope with many different extremes."
Although the hot spell has seen temperatures pushing the British record of 37.1C (98.8F) we also have to endure temperatures that can drop as low as minus 20C (-4F) in the winter. Railway tracks are stretched as they are laid, and this prevents them buckling up to temperature of 27C (81F). Making them capable of taking more heat would only bring problems later. "We could stress them more so they can withstand hotter temperatures, but then they would be more susceptible to cracking come the winter," said Steve Turner, an engineer with Network Rail.
It is not just a British problem. In June France's new high-speed TGV train link between Paris and the Mediterranean suffered delays because the tracks overheated. In July 90 people were injured when a doubledecker Amtrak train derailed near Washington DC. Investigators suspect a rail had buckled in the heat.
Unsurprisingly, money could solve the problem. Rather than being fixed by sleepers, rails can be set in concrete, which prevents them from bulging out as they warm up. "The problem is, it's about eight times more expensive. The country will never be able to afford to do it across the whole network," Mr Turner said.
Money is not the hurdle every time, though. Much of the reason Britons struggle so much is that we simply do not adapt well to extreme weather. Our failure to adapt to the variability of our climate means Britain, in common with other temperate regions, is doomed to take the brunt of havoc caused by hot spells, according to Neil Adger, an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia.
"In hotter countries, people have invested in air conditioning, they remember to rehydrate themselves, and they know when to stay out of the sun. Over here we seem to get surprised every summer. One thing is for sure, we're going to have to become more adaptable because hot spells will become more common and we're going to have to change our ways."
Chris West, director of the UK climate impacts programme at the University of Oxford, said: "People have to realise they need to adapt to the climate we've got. There are things you can do straight away. You can remember to put the blinds down if nobody's using that desk near the window. You can make sure the first person into the office opens the windows.
"And you can realise that when it's hot like this, nobody's going to achieve anything after mid-afternoon because they're too frazzled. Instead, you can come in earlier, miss the bad traffic, and get off before the day gets too hot."
Adapting our behaviour will only take us so far. If climate change does make extreme weather more common in Britain we will have to rethink how we design buildings, at the very least. According to Geoff Levermore, a civil engineer at Umist who specialises in environmental issues, we should be moving towards exposed brick, which is much cooler. "You effectively want to make your building like a cave. If you live in a cave, it stays pretty much the same temperature all year," he said. And instead of using old-fashioned air conditioning systems, air can be kept cool in the summer and warmed up in the winter simply by pumping it through cavities in the walls.
Air conditioning - the US standard solution to hot weather - should only really be needed in dense urban settings. "You can't rightly open your window for a breeze in a city because there's too much noise and pollution."
If the hot spell does persist, it might at least give us a better chance of learning how to adapt to it. But it's not just the heat we're going to have to get used to. Maybe the hardest thing will be to accept the fact that Britain, like every other country, will always go off the rails a little when extreme weather comes along. In the meantime, siesta anyone?
A week of tumbling records
Temperature records have been broken in many places during the heatwave, though the UK high of 37.1C (98.8F) set in 1990 still stands.
- Gravesend, Kent The temperature reached 36.4C (97.5F) yesterday, making it the hottest day in Britain since August 3 1990
- Wisley, Surrey The temperature reached 36.1C (97F) yesterday, making it the hottest day there since digital data records began in 1959
- Valley, Anglesey The temperature reached 33C (91.4F) on Tuesday, making it the hottest day there since records began in 1931
- There is still some way to go before other records are broken. In 1976 temperatures exceeded 32C (89.6F) somewhere in Britain on 15 consecutive days, starting on June 23
source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1015144,00.html 9aug03
Wish You Weren't Here?
Hotspots Around the World
The Guardian 9aug03
Britain has not been the only part of the world experiencing extreme temperatures. Here are four other countries that have suffered severe weather:
A spokeswoman for the state weather office said temperatures this week were expected to near the national record of 44C (111.2F)
In Paris an inner-city beach has been created on the banks of the Seine, with sand, palm trees, hammocks and cafes. Sweltering Parisians have also used fountains to cool off.
Last month the hot, dry weather fuelled some of the worst fires seen in decades, which torched swaths of forest and killed five tourists in the Riviera and on Corsica.
Many French farmers have requested state aid to counter the drought.
Some towns in north-eastern France have had no train service since Tuesday, due to buckled rails.
Two elderly women in southwestern Spain died on Thursday of heat stroke, increasing the number of fatalities blamed on the hot weather to 16, officials said.
Some 1,600 people were evacuated from a camp ground and several villas in the north-east when a forest fire spread through surrounding hills. Two people were arrested on suspicion of setting fires in central Spain.
The temperature of the Mediterranean off the Spanish coast has risen to 32C (89.6F), 10 degrees above normal and the highest in 45 years.
Spanish TV and radio broadcasts have been urging people to drink lots of water, limit exercise outdoors and wear loose-fitting clothing.
Firefighters have battled western Canada's worst wildfire season in decades, though no deaths have been reported.
British Columbia, which is about the size of France and Germany combined, is under a state of emergency as dry conditions create what officials say is the most dangerous wildfire season in a half century. One blaze covered more than 39 square miles of forests and grasslands dried by a hot summer with little rain in recent weeks.
Officials also reported 80 forest fires in the prairie province of Saskatchewan and 14 fires in neighbouring Manitoba, including a 154-square-mile blaze in the remote north.
A British Airways Concorde was forced to make an unscheduled stop on Wednesday in Gander, Newfoundland, because hot air, with its higher pressure, meant more fuel was needed.
The Flemish tourism ministry reported that day trips to the coast were up 19% in July, while amusement parks reported a 6% decrease in sales.
A hospital in eastern Belgium has been giving patients free ice cream twice a day but boat rental companies are suffering after kayaking was banned on several rivers with low water levels.
source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/weather/Story/0,2763,1015344,00.html 9aug03
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