Britain recorded its highest ever temperature of 40C (104F) on Tuesday as a heatwave gripping Europe intensified, forcing train tracks to buckle and fuelling a spate of fires across London.
The Met Office said a new provisional record temperature of 40.3C (104.5F) was recorded in Coningsby, in central England, with 29 sites across the country experiencing temperatures in excess of the previous high of 38.7C (101.7F) recorded in 2019.
A fire burns during a heatwave, in Rainham, east London, Britain, July 19, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Stephen Belcher at the Met Office said he had not expected to see such temperatures in Britain in his career.
"Research conducted here at the Met Office has demonstrated that it's virtually impossible for the UK to experience 40C in an undisrupted climate but climate change driven by greenhouse gases has made these extreme temperatures possible," he said.
Train routes from London up the east and west coast of the country were cancelled, electricity companies reported mass outages and normally busy city centres appeared quiet. Network Rail tweeted a number of pictures showing large bends and kinks in rail tracks.
London Fire Brigade declared a major incident and urged people to stop having barbecues, as 110 fire engines battled blazes across the capital.
To the east, a large fire engulfed homes in the village of Wennington, with flames tearing across neighbouring tinder-dry fields and approaching a historic church. Elsewhere large grass areas around the capital were on fire, blowing smoke over major roads and nearby areas.
Britain, which can struggle to maintain key transport services in extreme heat or snow, had been put on a state of national emergency over the unprecedented temperatures.
'Do not travel'
Transport minister Grant Shapps said there had been a considerable amount of travel disruption.
"Infrastructure, much of which was built from the Victorian times, just wasn't built to withstand this type of temperature," he said.
Operator Network Rail advised passengers to only travel if absolutely necessary.
"Extreme Heat: All services stopped. Do not come to the station," Avanti West Coast, which runs services from London to cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, said on Twitter.
⚠️ Absolutely DO NOT travel north out of London.⚠️
This record-breaking heat means there are no train services out of London King’s Cross or London Euston.@NetworkRailEUS @NetworkRailKGX @AvantiWestCoast @LNER@nationalrailenq#heatwave #heatwaveuk pic.twitter.com/t5ZROs7GqP
— Network Rail (@networkrail) July 19, 2022
Climate scientists said the once-unthinkable temperature in London was likely to become more common in coming years.
Sony Kapoor, a climate and macro-economic professor at European University Institute, said he had long thought that people underestimated the physical impacts of climate change in contemporary times. "But even I never thought we would see 40 degree Celsius in London in 2022," he said.
The arrival of a searing heatwave that first sparked wildfires across Europe before arriving in Britain has turned the spotlight on to "net zero" pledges made by the candidates running to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister.
After Johnson championed the move to net zero status when Britain held the United Nations COP26 climate change summit in 2021, some of the candidates to replace him have appeared more lukewarm and rated other challenges facing the country as their priority.
One candidate, Kemi Badenoch, said she believed in cutting carbon emissions but not in bankrupting the economy to do so.
Lawmakers who later gathered in a hot building in the House of Commons to announce the elimination of Badenoch from the competition were kept cool by multiple large fans.
After Tuesday's heat, the Met Office has also issued warnings of heavy thunderstorms which could strike southern England on Wednesday.