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Heatwaves and droughts cause transport networks to shut down, interrupt supply chains, delay construction projects, and lead to costly production volatility.
Britain has experienced severe heatwaves this summer like never before, with temperatures hitting a record high and droughts threatening the public water supply. Experts expect to see more such extreme weather events due to climate change.
Experts warn that one spell after another of hot and dry weather could take a grim economic toll. During the summer, infrastructure in Britain was put under mounting pressure amid the heat, with agriculture disrupted by a lack of water
INFRASTRUCTURE UNDER PRESSURE
Britain baked in its hottest day ever on July 19 as a village in the East Midlands of England saw air temperature reach 40.3 degrees Celsius, beating the previous record of 38.7 degrees in July 2019. Before that, the national weather service Met Office had issued its first-ever red extreme heat warning.
Amid the sweltering heat, wildfires broke out in multiple areas. London Fire Brigade called that Tuesday the "busiest day since World War II," as firefighters dealt with more than 1,146 incidents across London, and Brigade Control took 2,670 calls. Over 40 houses and shops were destroyed.
Scorching weather also disrupted traffic as several rail services had to close, and a speed limit was imposed. Buckled rail, fires and sagging overhead line equipment are just some of the problems impacting the railway, according to Network Rail, owner and infrastructure manager of most of the railway networks in Great Britain.
British Travel Secretary Grant Shapps said the country's Victorian-built railway lines were not designed to withstand such high temperatures. "It will be many years before we can replace infrastructure with the kind of infrastructure that could, because the temperatures are so extreme," Shapps noted.
Extreme heat could put Britain's power grid under mounting pressure as well. By the end of the century, air conditioning could increase Britain's electricity consumption by up to 15 percent during the summer. Increasingly frequent heatwaves may eventually make summer just as stressful for the power grid as winter, said Kathryn Porter, an energy analyst at Watt Logic, an independent energy consultancy. "At the moment we just don't have the infrastructure for these hotter temperatures."
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A drought was officially declared in mid-August across a large swathe of England amid a new heatwave and prolonged dry weather. More restrictions were placed on water use in affected areas. The last drought in England was in 2018.
England has experienced an arid summer this year, with the driest July since 1935. During the month, rainfall was classed as exceptionally low for the time of year in most areas, said the British Environment Agency.
This July was also the fifth consecutive month across England with below-average rainfall. "River flows decreased in July at most of the indicator sites we report on, and the majority of sites are classed as notably low for the time of year," it added.
Mike Rivington, senior scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Britain, said drought "is a warning signal that the issue of water needs to be taken a lot more seriously as droughts have consequences on the ability of nature to function and provide society with the essentials for life."
"Biodiversity, particularly soil micro-organisms that maintain soil fertility, may struggle to recover, impacting next year's farming productivity," Rivington noted. "Climate change makes droughts more likely, meaning agricultural productivity will be further reduced, leading to even higher food prices."
Howard Griffiths, co-chair of Cambridge's Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre, said drought has brought an added burden to the challenges already facing farmers in Britain.
"Overall, the climate extremes associated with climate change have led in recent years to two successive autumns in which it was too wet to sow many of our overwintering crops, whilst more extensive summer droughts further constrain the growing seasons," Griffiths said, adding that "Climate extremes are major challenges facing food security in the UK, in addition to rising costs of energy and fertilisers."
Extreme weather is considered an indicator of climate change. In July, an annual report on Britain's climate in 2021 was released by the Met Office, which shows the continuation of warmer-than-average years and rising sea levels around the country.
This "continues to show the impact of global temperature rises on the climate in the UK, reaffirming that climate change is not just a problem for the future and that it is already influencing the conditions we experience here at home," said the Met Office.
This summer, the impact was already visible and expected to persist. "Hotter and drier summers in the UK is something we know will get worse in the future due to human-induced climate change. We have known about this for a long time," said Dann Mitchell, professor of climate science at the University of Bristol.
Also, the economics of climate change stretch far beyond the impact on growing crops, according to Kamiar Mohaddes from the Cambridge Judge Business School. Heavy rainfall prevents mountain access for mining and affects commodity prices, and cold snaps raise heating bills and high street spending drops.
Heatwaves and droughts cause transport networks to shut down, interrupt supply chains, delay construction projects and lead to costly production volatility, adversely affecting labor productivity.
"All these things add up," Mohaddes said, adding that "the that rich, temperate nations are economically immune to climate change, or could even double and triple their wealth as a result, is implausible."