May 24, 2024


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Extreme heat in UK adds further air travel disruption as it melts airport runway

Europe bakes under deadly heat wave


Parts of the U.K. are literally melting because of extreme heat. On Monday, Luton Airport, about 30 miles north of London, had to suspend flights because the excessive heat damaged part of its runway, adding further strain to an already tumultuous travel season

The airport tweeted on Monday that the high temperatures caused “a surface defect” to be identified on the runway, later saying that the high surface temperatures had caused a small section of the surface to lift. Monday was another day of what the U.K.’s Meteorological Office identified as “extreme heat,” which they attribute to “exceptional, perhaps record-breaking, temperatures.” The Luton area, according to the office, saw temperatures as high as 35º Celsius – or 95 degrees Fahrenheit – on Monday. 

The runway was fully operational again within a few hours, but the impact from the heat is just the latest in a string of airline travel woes across the globe. Just last week, London’s Heathrow Airport had to cap airline passengers to deal with soaring travel demand and staff shortages. In recent weeks, thousands of flights have been canceled in the U.S., with hundreds of thousands seeing delays. Millions of people have been impacted. 

And the latest issue at Luton is indicative of a far greater issue – the numerous significant tolls that extreme heat can take on infrastructure. 

London’s East Midlands Railway also issued a warning on Monday urging people to refrain from traveling on Tuesday because of the extreme temperatures, which are expected to hit 38 degrees Celsius, or more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, in the area.

While July is the warmest month for the Midlands, the highest daily temperature tends to be around 23.5ºC, according to the Met Office.

In its warning, the railway said that the tracks are typically 20 degrees warmer than the air, meaning that extreme temperatures can “cause the track to buckle and bend” – a significant safety issue given the trains’ speeds of up to 125 miles per hour. Many of the services were canceled on Tuesday while some trains had their speeds reduced to as low as 20 miles per hour in some areas. Thameslink trains were also significantly limited. 

The warnings also come as the U.K. hit its hottest day on record shortly before 1 p.m. on Tuesday with a temperature of 40.2 degrees Celsius – more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit – at Heathrow. The temperature, if confirmed, will beat the previous record set in 2019 by 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The excessive temperatures are indicative of an ongoing lack of climate resiliency when it comes to infrastructure. 

A heat wave in the U.S. Pacific Northwest last year forced municipalities to hose down their bridges to prevent them from locking up and being unable to function under extreme heat, as days of triple-digit temperatures caused roads to buckle and crack. And this summer, experts have warned that the U.S. power grid may not be able to keep up with excessive sweltering heat. 

And as the world continues to pump out fossil fuel emissions and contribute to global warming, these temperatures are likely to become much more frequent. Met Office scientist Nikos Christidis said in a statement that climate change is already influencing the likelihood of extreme temperatures in the U.K.

“The chances of seeing 40-degree Celsius days in the UK could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence,” Christidis said. “The likelihood of exceeding 40 degrees Celsius anywhere in the U.K. in a given year has also been rapidly increasing, and, even with current pledges on emissions reductions, such extremes could be taking place every 15 years in the climate of 2100.”