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The Problem With Heat

Updated: Jul 1, 2023


The world is heating up and the UK is no exception.


The Earth has existed for 4 billion years or so with a relatively stable climate. In an article in 2008, New Scientist Magazine explained that our climate "remained in a narrow, liveable, range for almost 4 billion years. The key appears to lie in the interplay between plate tectonics, carbon dioxide and the oceans" (1).


We know other planets like Mars and Venus also used to have wet-worlds like ours, although science is yet unclear as to what caused their climate to change.


What we do know is, that our own climate here on Earth is changing. Yes, over millennia there have been natural ebs and flows of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere but these have taken place over thousands and millions of years (2). What we understand today, is that human actions are accelerating carbon dioxide levels at an alarming rate, causing unprecedented increases in global temperatures.


We also know that global air temperatures have been accelerating since the industrial revolution (3).


Image courtesy of Nasa, Earth Observatory (4):


At the time of writing, the MET office was predicting that this June (2023) was the hottest since their records began! This exceeds the well-known summer of 1976 which is now in second place (5)!


Now, before we celebrate enjoying tropical summers here at home, rising temperatures are not something to celebrate - despite what some quarters of our national press say!! Now, we are not saying that people shouldn't enjoy the weather as best they can, by all means, enjoy it (safely). But watching some of the world's media outlets celebrating a heatwave - something that can trigger a public health emergency - really grinds our gears! This blog post takes a little look at why.


So, what is happening? why are we getting an increased risk of heat waves? Well, the United Nations describes the situation like this:


"Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.


As greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun’s heat. This leads to global warming and climate change. The world is now warming faster than at any point in recorded history. Warmer temperatures over time are changing weather patterns and disrupting the usual balance of nature. This poses many risks to human beings and all other forms of life on Earth." (6)


So, while some get excited about a summer holiday at home, here are just a few reasons (in no particular order) why we don't get excited to see extreme heat and why heat waves are bad for us all.


Wildfires


Experts say that extreme heat and associated droughts are responsible for increased incidences of wildfires both in the UK and around the globe. Wildfires threaten lives, homes, businesses and ecosystems (7). Increasing numbers of wildfires also raise air pollution risks by releasing smoke and carbon into the atmosphere while simultaneously clearing the ground of natural carbon sequestration capabilities. This is particularly relevant if the wildfire affects peat land or forests which are the two most significant natural land-based carbon stores (8).


This year has already seen a UK wildfire that was visible in space! In late May, due to the unseasonably dry conditions, a wildfire spreading around 30sq miles across the Highlands of Scotland looks set to break records as the largest recorded wildfire in the UK (9).


Food Insecurity


The World Bank considered the risk for food supply chains due to climate change and found that "The number of people suffering acute food insecurity increased from 135 million in 2019 to 345 million in 82 countries by June 2022" (10) The UK is not immune to such challenges. During the heatwave in 2022, many fruit farmers lost entire crops due to excess heat and droughts (11) European supply chains have also experienced extreme weather that has reduced crop outputs, further compounding shortages seen in UK stores (12).


As a small allotmenteer, along with my grow-your-own chums, we all have the same stories of failed crops, challenges with seed germination, and water shortages.


Health


Heatwaves affect health in many ways. Poverty can prevent mitigations against the worst of a heatwave, as too can poor housing or even indeed modern housing built to high thermal standards. Heatwaves increase incidents of cardiovascular and respiratory issues and increase demands on already stretched acute healthcare services (13).


Any prolonged temperature over 35C brings increased risk to health, even to those classed as healthy. Health risks increase if we also get high nighttime temperatures which prevent our bodies from cooling sufficiently. Last year, over 3,000 deaths were attributed to the heatwave in England and Wales alone (14).


Parts of England have been tipping the mercury at dangerous levels for a few years now. In July 2022, the UK registered its first 40C temperature on record in Coningsby in Lincolnshire and witnessed numerous wildfires that created air pollution, threatened lives and destroyed homes (15).


Urban residents are most at risk of extreme heat due to the heat-island effect. This is when areas are overdeveloped and lacking in green spaces such as trees and parks. The hard landscaping and solid constructions in addition to the heat generated from transport and industry all help raise temperatures by as much as 6C which, when coupled with extreme summer temperatures, can turn a heatwave from unpleasant to deadly (16).


Water - too much and too little


We all know that prolonged heat can cause droughts, but did you know that excess heat can also be responsible for flooding?


The warmer the air becomes, the more moisture can be held in our atmosphere. This can result in heavier, more prolonged rainfall, often over localised areas. When this rain falls onto dry, parched earth, it can exacerbate localised flood events as the rain simply runs off rather than soaking into the soil (17).


Recent analysis has shown that the UK is suffering from increasing numbers of flash floods and the authors of a recent report say that the UK is inadequately prepared for these events and are calling on the UK Government to do more (18).


Air Pollution


Burning fossil fuels doesn't just warm the Earth, they are also a predominant cause of outdoor air pollution. Data collated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that 99% of the global population now breathes air that exceeds what they determine as safe limits. They estimate air pollution to have caused 4.3 million premature deaths worldwide in 2019 alone (19).


Air pollution is a particular concern along major urban transport routes with high numbers of vehicles burning fossil fuels and releasing particulate matter, nitrous oxides and other greenhouse gasses. Even lower levels of pollution from cars may impact insects and birds, all of which are needed for healthy ecosystems and pollination of plants, including our food. These greenhouse gases all add to the ever-growing warming effect in our atmosphere (20).


Sunshine and heat can also combine with particulate matter including nitrogen dioxide from cars to form ground-level Ozone which can cause severe air pollution that irritates lungs and airwaves (21).


If you want to check the air quality where you are, this website by Clean Air Hub operates a user-friendly tool that links into DEFRA's Daily Air Quality Index Check local air quality in the UK (cleanairhub.org.uk)




As we read earlier, the UN attributes the burning of fossil fuels as the primary catalyst for climate change, responsible for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.


We, as individuals, whether we like it or not, live in a world driven by fossil fuel use. What we believe is needed more than anything, is policy and governmental intervention on a global scale. Policy makers need to fund the tech and implement policy that will make the transition away from fossil fuels quicker and simpler. They also need to Implement a plan to make our public transport more accessible and frankly, reliable, especially in more rural communities who are heavily reliant on cars for day-to-day use.


As individuals though there are things we should look at to help drive the message to the government that we want to move away from a fossil-fuel driven society.


Transportation, heating our home, cooking and even down to the clothes we wear and goods we buy, everything by and large is centered around fossil fuel use which makes individual action really difficult - but not impossible.


One of our major uses of fossil fuels is for heating the home. We wrote a blog that goes into this in more detail.


We also use significant amounts of fossil fuel when we drive our car. Yes, some argue that electric vehicles are more environmentally friendly (we aren't fans, but we won't go into our reasons in this blog - maybe later?!) but ultimately, we need to start asking ourselves, given the state of our climate today, what we can do to really start making an impact to our fossil fuel consumption. Can we use the car less, walk more, find alternate heating fuels?


What of our day to day consumption habits? No one is suggesting for a second that we can, or should, all become self-sufficient, but do we really need to buy the latest fast fashion in several colours, all made from polyester or other fossil fuel (plastic) based fabric? Do we really need that beautifully molded plastic homeware when there are so many sustainable brands now offering fabulous and functional goods on the market?


For anyone who hasn't looked into their carbon footprint, why not try using a carbon calculator and see where changes might be made? There are many on the internet, but we used this one by the Open University which we found went into things in just a little bit more detail.


These are just examples, of course and we appreciate there is no one-size-fits-all type solution - that's why we are asking questions rather than offering a prescribed list of solutions. But, given the state of the planet, we think it is time that we all start asking ourselves some difficult questions to start reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.


There are some things that we can do though to help mitigate the worst of the heat, and indeed alleviate some of the flooding risk associated with heavy and sudden downpours. Things like planting trees - of which there are many varieties suitable for even small spaces and pot growing - can help reduce temperatures in their local vicinity. We can also lobby local politicians to create new green spaces and protect exists ones. Instead of using hard landscaping like slabs and concrete, why not consider permeable materials like stone chips to aid drainage of heavy downpours. Another thing to think about is your lawn. If you just keep it as lawn and never use it, why not replace it with plants, shrubs and trees especially perennials which require minimal maintenance? This helps reduce the heat nearby, acts as a carbon store and offers wildlife a place to shelter or travel between green spaces in your neighbourhood.



Please note. We are aware there are many other things also have an impact on our climate and carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. This blog broadly looks at the implications of fossil fuels as the largest contributor to those issues. We may well write blogs in the future looking at other contributors.


As with all things, please note that links are provided here for your information only if you wish to do further reading about the subject. We are not linked to, affiliated with, and cannot vouch for, the security and content of external sources. Please use them at your own risk and apply your own due diligence.










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