Britain entered a new hot-weather era yesterday when the temperature record was broken by a substantial margin, the thermometer exceeding the 100F mark for the first time.
In the mid-afternoon of a sweltering day in southern England the temperature at Heathrow airport was recorded at 37.9C (100.2F), higher than the previous record of 37.1C (98.8F) set at Cheltenham in August 1990. It was the hottest temperature since records began in 1659.
Nigel Reed, the head of the operations centre at the UK Met Office in Bracknell, Berkshire, said that although no individual weather event could be directly ascribed to global warming, "this was consistent with what we would expect to happen with climate change".
The record, which had been predicted by forecasters, was the peak of a baking hot day in the South which saw people flocking in their tens of thousands to the coasts, and to swimming pools, parks, gardens and even fountains. Others simply stayed indoors to try to keep cool.
But in the Midlands and the North violent thunderstorms caused injuries and widespread disruption. At least 23 people were hurt after being struck by lightning, including 15 people at a football match in Birmingham and two Brownies at a camp near Blackburn in Lancashire. One man died and dozens of others had to be rescued after small boats were overwhelmed by a storm off Teesside. Racing at Redcar had to be called off because the course was waterlogged.
Although there can be no direct proof that yesterday's record temperature was the result of climate change, many observers see it as part of a steadily warming pattern affecting the world, not least because of the margin by which the previous UK record was broken - nearly a whole degree centigrade and nearly a degree-and-a-half fahrenheit.
The 10 hottest years in the global temperature record, which goes back to 1860, have occurred since 1990. The hottest was 1998, which, according to the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, was probably the hottest year in the northern hemisphere for 1,000 years. It is followed by 2002 and 2001, and it is already clear that 2003 will be a strong contender to join them.
In Britain, four of the five hottest years in the Central England Temperature Record, which goes back nearly 350 years, have occurred since 1990.
Yesterday's record was seen as a momentous occasion by the Met Office forecasters, and the normally cathedral-like silence of the National Meteorological Centre at Bracknell was broken by "a suppressed cheer" when it was telephoned over from Heathrow, Mr Reed said. Roger White, a forecaster at the Met Office's London Weather Centre, said that for "weather nerds" like him it was exciting to be working on the day the record was broken. "Most of the people in the Met Office who have been here for a long time aren't here for the money," he said.
"We tend to get fairly excited about these things because that's what interests us, that's why we joined. It's an honour to be working on such a day."
Other people raising a cheer were punters who had bet on the record being broken. Bookmakers will have to pay out an estimated £500,000 to hundreds of people who put money on the heat hitting 99F and 100F. William Hill faces having to pay out up £250,000. "As far as I can make out it will be as big a payout as one of the White Christmas ones," said Graham Sharpe, William Hill's spokesman.
The year is shaping up to rival 1976, the hottest summer most people over 40 can remember. The unusual weather is caused by warm air pushing up across France. A migratory locust, normally found in southern Europe, Africa or the Middle East, was reported in East Sussex.
The Saharan climate provoked a rush for electric fans and air conditioning equipment, with retailers reporting many of their stores sold out. The arrival of a fresh consignment of fans at a branch of John Lewis in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, caused a minor stampede as shoppers rushed to make purchases, elbowing aside other customers.
A manager at the company's store in Brent Cross, north London, said: "We sold out of anything that helps people keep cool on Friday. Fans, air conditioning, paddling pools, you name it, you can't find it today."
Paddy Castledine, co-owner of Brockwell Lido in south London, said: "We reached our capacity by 1pm. It is just so hot, I imagine people would like all of London to be one big lido today. We have waited 10 years for this."
HOW WORLD TEMPERATURES COMPARED
(temperatures C, F) Baghdad 47, 117
Beirut 43, 110
London 37.9, 100
Paris 37, 99
Madrid 36, 97
Cairo 35, 96
Rome 33, 93
Berlin 32, 91
Miami 32, 91
Athens 31, 88
Barbados 30, 86
New York 27, 81
Dublin 23, 75
Nairobi 21, 71
Moscow 20, 69
Sydney 17, 64