Why is there no UK heatwave as Europe swelters during Charon?

As Europe grapples with extreme temperatures, experts explain what’s driving the UK’s contrasting weather

Stuti Mishra
Thursday 20 July 2023 07:53 BST
Heatwave at Wimbledon

A deadly heatwave sweeping across Europe with temperatures forecast to shatter records in the coming days stands in complete contrast to the weather faced by the United Kingdom that has had wet and windy conditions continuing this week.

As the UK gets prolonged showers – the Met Office predicts unsettled conditions to continue for the next few days – the Mediterranean region grapples with soaring heat that could touch a new European record as soon as this week.

Temperatures are expected to go beyond 40C in parts of Spain and Italy in the coming days.

Spain, Italy and Greece have been experiencing scorching temperatures for several days already, damaging agriculture and leaving tourists scurrying for shade.

But a new anticyclone dubbed Charon, who in Greek mythology was the ferryman of the dead, pushed into the region from north Africa on Sunday and could lift temperatures above 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in parts of Italy early this week.

The country’s blazing mercury led to the death of a 44-year-old man, while a tourist from the UK visiting Rome’s Colosseum fainted, prompting health warnings.

“We need to prepare for a severe heat storm that, day after day, will blanket the whole country,” Italian weather news service Meteo.it warned on Sunday.

“In some places ancient heat records will be broken.”

The temperature of the ground, which is different from the air temperature that weather forecasts mention, hit more than 60C in some areas of Spain last week, satellite recordings have shown.

While mean ground temperatures are generally close to the air temperatures, they can sometimes be higher as the soil in summer can trap more heat. However, a surface land temperature of 60C is extremely high and rare in Europe.

The heatwave will intensify from Monday, with temperatures reaching 44C (111.2F) in the Guadalquivir valley near Seville in the south of the country, forecasters predicted.

The conditions have been raising fears of a repeat of last year’s extreme heat conditions when Europe experienced its hottest summer on record in 2022, marked by an onslaught of scorching heatwaves, devastating droughts and raging forest fires driven by the human-induced climate crisis.

The heat contributed to the deaths of over 61,000 people, a recent study has shown.

Heat map showing extremely hot areas in black
Heat map showing extremely hot areas in black (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-3 imagery)

Experts have said the European heatwave is because of an area of high pressure named after the underworld monster from Dante’s Inferno – Cerberus.

The area of high pressure comes as the world recently experienced record-shattering temperatures that have fuelled baking heatwaves in several countries like the US – that has seen contrasting weather extremes of its own.

The southern US has been engulfed by extreme heat while its northeast grapples with severe flooding.

The UK, on the other hand, finds itself under the influence of a different weather pattern that has brought in more rain and thus pulled down temperatures after the country got its hottest June on record, pointed out experts.

Dr Melissa Lazenby, a climate change lecturer at the University of Sussex, explained that the current placement of a high-pressure system located further south is the primary reason for this divergence.

“The current European Heatwave is being driven by stable atmospheric conditions from a stationary high pressures feature,” Dr Lazenby explained.

She added that while it is not possible to determine all the drivers and their exact contributions to the current heatwave yet, Europe is not “particularly affected by El Niño events directly”.

“Therefore it is likely the high-pressure system and climate change are the main contributors to this heatwave event,” she said.

“The UK at the moment is not experiencing the same high temperatures as the rest of Europe and that is mainly due to the placement of the current high-pressure system, which does not cover the UK and is situated further south,” Dr Lazenby said, “which provides stable atmospheric conditions for enhanced warming and resulting heatwaves”.

“If you are in the UK today, you will notice the higher winds which are not associated with a high-pressure feature and therefore not allowing conducive heatwave conditions explaining why UK temperatures are not anomalously warm like the rest of Europe.”

A woman fans herself in Madrid, Spain
A woman fans herself in Madrid, Spain (AP)

While the UK may be relieved to avoid sweltering conditions experienced by its European counterparts, extreme temperatures have impacted the country’s summertime this year.

The Met Office said record June temperatures in the UK were caused by “the background warming of the Earth’s atmosphere due to human-induced climate change”.

The sea around the UK and Ireland also experienced an “unheard of” extreme marine heatwave that posed dangers to the coastal ecosystem.

July was largely expected to be the hottest month of the year, surpassing June temperatures, as experts predicted more heatwaves in the coming days. Current changes, however, indicate no imminent heatwave threat to the country.

But the rapid temperature rise in the Mediterranean region serves as a stark reminder that the climate crisis is an intricate system with potential feedback loops and unforeseen events, experts say.

“To an extent, the European heatwave we are seeing in summer 2023 reflects what has been observed over the last few years in the science. Namely, that Europe has been warming much faster than other continents in recent decades, and that this trend is especially pronounced in north-west Europe – including the UK,” said Dr Leslie Mabon, lecturer in environmental systems at The Open University.

Dr Mabon explained that while it is difficult to pinpoint a single factor responsible for making Europe warm so fast, due to the complex relationships between the different elements in the system, “we can be in absolutely no doubt that a critical driver behind this warming trend is carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels”.

“Until we rapidly reduce emissions from fossil fuels, extremes like the heatwave we are seeing in Europe at the moment are going to become more and more likely,” Dr Mabon said.

“The differences that we are seeing in the extent of warming both globally and between regions of Europe are also a stark reminder that the Earth’s climate is a complex system.

“As we get to higher degrees of warming, the danger of feedback loops or unexpected events occurring becomes greater. This is why we need to urgently reduce emissions from fossil fuels and limit the extent of global heating at all costs.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in