5 Ways the U.K. Is Not Built for Extreme Heat

Temperatures in the U.K. are set to surpass records on Monday and Tuesday, with forecasts topping 104°F (40°C). Experts warned of the possibility that hundreds could die. As infrastructure collapses, train operators are urging passengers to avoid travel for other reasons.

The U.K. isn’t the only country in northern and western Europe to face extreme heat this week, as hot air from North Africa makes its way towards France, Germany and Spain, among other European countries. The U.K., as a northern country-nation has a more temperate climate than those that were not designed to withstand these extreme temperatures. These are five reasons:

Housing design

Marialena Nikolopoulou from the University of Kent tells TIME that both Victorian-era buildings and newer properties are not well-prepared for heat. The thick stone walls in older houses help keep the interior cool. However, unsuitable insulation and large windows can negate these benefits.

Poor design is a problem in modern buildings. “Frequently nowadays, developers buy a flat and refurbish it to sell for profit. So they try to do it the cheapest possible way,” Nikolopoulou says, referring to buildings that cram many apartments within it. This reduces cross ventilation, which is why windows are placed across buildings.

Apartment blocks in hotter European countries like Spain are usually built around central cavities that allow for continuous airflow. Using inappropriate building materials to improve appearance or provide cheap insulation in large apartment blocks can lead to what Nikolopoulou calls a “greenhouse effect” in summer, where heat has nowhere to go.

What’s more, experts say that climate change will soon render winter-proof design useless for many months of the year. “By 2050, we will regularly have temperatures above 35°C in the south of the U.K.,” said Chloe Brimicombe, a heat stress researcher at the University of Reading. The 2050s could see an increase in heat exhaustion deaths of 5,000 to 7,000.


Britons are advised not to travel by non-essential trains due to the possibility of steel tracks buckling. As trains undergo speed restrictions, major disruptions will be expected across the network.

Britain has some of the oldest working railways in the world, the majority of which are built with steel tracks that tend to be around 68°F above the surrounding temperature. By imposing slower speeds, the train can move at a lower speed, which helps reduce the likelihood of it buckling. It also prevents overhead power lines overheating. The London underground dates back to 1863, and many of the trains in use are decades old—seven lines still don’t have air conditioning.

Public transport can be a great way to reduce emissions and keep temperatures down in your immediate surroundings.

Urban planning

London, which is home to 9 million people, can reach up to 18°F (10°C) warmer than neighboring rural areas. The urban heat island effect is where heat-absorbing surfaces and concrete buildings increase the heat. Nikolopoulo believes that the problem will worsen due to increased demand for housing, which fuels large-scale property development in British cities. Meanwhile, green space is being squeezed further. The decline in urban green spaces across England was 63%-56% between 2001-2016, and new properties were disproportionately affected when park size reductions occurred.

Nikolopoulou believes that the government should provide shade for pedestrians and plant trees. Many roads made from asphalt and concrete heat quickly, heating the streets and sidewalks. “It’s like you’re walking in through an oven effectively,” Nikolopoulou says.

Cooling centres

The U.K. has no air-conditioned cooling centres. They provide shelter and lifesaving services for people who are most vulnerable during heatwaves. “We need to make short-term changes for things like cooling centers and then longer-term changes, as well as assuming the very good progress we’ve already made as a nation towards net zero,” said Penelope Endersby, the chief executive of the U.K.’s Meteorological Office.

Air Conditioning

According to most estimates, less than 5% in UK residential properties have air conditioning. This compares with 91% in the U.S. Because older buildings and brick are often made without air cavities it is more difficult to retrofit units.

But installing air conditioning units isn’t necessarily the answer, being costly both for the user and the environment. According to calculations by the World Economic Forum, the greenhouse gas emissions that result from air conditioning units will account for as much as a 0.5°C rise in global temperatures by 2100.

Hot air is also released by air conditioning units as they move, often onto streets. This increases the heat effect on concrete sidewalks, and discourages pedestrians from walking.

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