Yes, Britain had a heatwave in 1976. No, it was nothing like the crisis we’re in now | Ella Gilbert

Yes, Britain had a heatwave in 1976. No, it was nothing like the crisis we’re in now

As a climate scientist, I’m tired of hearing about that summer. The extreme heat we’re experiencing globally has no precedent

A dry tributary to the Dowry reservoir near Oldham, 18 July 2022

I’m too young to remember the 1976 heatwave. But as a climate scientist, I’m tired of hearing about why it means we shouldn’t take the climate crisis seriously. 1976 was undeniably a hot summer. A really hot summer, in fact. Temperatures topped 32C (89.6F) somewhere in the UK for 15 days on the trot, climbing to a maximum of 35.9C on 3 July. But in many ways it was nothing like the heatwave we’re enduring right now.

In 1976, the UK was an anomalous red blob of unusual heat on a map of distinctly normal summer temperatures. Contrast that to July 2022, and there are few places on Earth where temperatures are not considerably above average. What makes 2022 a lot worse than 1976 is not just the temperature itself – which will be 4-5C higher than in 1976 if the forecasts are accurate – but how large an area is currently feeling the heat. Parts of Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have been baking in 40C-plus heat for days on end. Combined with extremely dry conditions, the heat has triggered wildfires and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Conservative MP John Hayes slammed those taking precautions against the heat here in the UK as “snowflakes” and “cowards”. This is ridiculous; the kind of temperatures we are currently experiencing are nothing to be complacent or derisive about. Extreme heat kills. For example, the deadly European heatwave of 2003 cost 70,000 lives across the continent, more than 2,000 in England, and hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest. The heat was so crippling in France that mortuaries ran out of space to store the bodies of those killed by the extreme temperatures. Tragically, this heatwave may follow suit, according to a former government chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, who has predicted there could be up to 10,000 excess deaths associated with this heatwave.

And let’s remember that this is far from the first heatwave of the year. We’ve already seen a brutal spring heatwave in India and Pakistan. Over two months in south Asia the mercury soared to nearly 50C. Temperatures in India were the highest in 122 years of record-keeping. A rapid attribution study – which detects the fingerprint of human activity in extreme events – found that the south Asian heatwave was made 30 times more likely by global heating, and was at least 1C hotter than it otherwise would have been. The heat caused deaths, power failures, fires and crop losses across India and Pakistan. And as with many extreme events, it was the most marginalised people who suffered the most.

Climate breakdown is increasing the intensity, duration and frequency of extreme heat events. And where global heating is concerned, we’re ahead of schedule: 40C heat was predicted for the UK of the 2050s, not the 2020s. So far we’ve warmed our planet by 1.1C on average, meaning every hot spell is already starting from a warmer “normal”. In fact, the UK Met Office recently revised its definition of a heatwave to account for this. A heatwave is declared when maximum temperatures exceed a regionally specific threshold for three consecutive days. For south-east England that used to be 27C. Now it’s 28C.

And this record-breaking year is just one in a series of record-breaking years. Nine of the top 10 hottest UK days on record have been since 1990. And 1976 isn’t the odd one out in that list: it doesn’t even make the cut. July 2022 will now top the list, with an unprecedented 40C or 41C predicted and the first red weather warning for heat in UK history. But while 2022 might be a year of firsts, it probably won’t hold its records for long. In the UK, 30C-odd heatwaves like that of 1976 are now 30 times more likely to occur than if we hadn’t changed our climate. And analysis from the Met Office suggests that 40C heatwaves like this one may happen every 15 years or so by the end of the century.

The only way to avoid these sorts of extreme events becoming the norm is to level up the ambition of our climate policies and deliver on our existing pledges. So as much as it may be tempting, 1976 isn’t an excuse to dismiss this week’s heatwave as just another natural event. There’s no hiding from the truth: we’re changing our climate, and we’ve got to do more about it.

  • Dr Ella Gilbert is a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey