June 16, 2023, by lzzre
What are the risks to the UK’s essential buildings during the heatwave?
Simon Gosling, Professor of Climate Risks, School of Geography, University of Nottingham
With some parts of the UK currently experiencing a heatwave, there have been large increases in water use in some areas, and some schools have shut this week due to water shortages. Is this a sign of what we can expect to become commonplace in the coming decades, and might we see a change in the time of year that exams take place so that school students are not exposed to extreme heat?
What are the main risks in terms of extreme heat at the moment for schools, hospitals and care homes?
The main risks are associated with an inability to keep people cool, especially those more vulnerable to the heat, which includes the very young, elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions like respiratory disease and heart disease.
Overheating can lead to heat exhaustion, which can lead to heat stroke which is treated as an emergency. It can also worsen chronic conditions for some people. It’s therefore essential that the settings/buildings mentioned are able to provide environments where their inhabitants can find relief from the heat and cool down if they start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion.
The risk tends to increase after several successive days of warm and hot weather, which is where we are now. Warmer nights are also a problem, as they offer little relief from the daytime heat.
Can we expect schools and other essential buildings to shut more frequently in the future due to spikes in water demand?
It’s a risk in some areas in the coming decades, if nothing extra is done to make essential buildings and water supply infrastructure better adapted to extreme heat and changes in water availability.
The UK’s most recent climate change risk assessment has projected that a daily water deficit across the UK could arise by the end of the century that is equivalent to the daily water usage of between 8.3 to 19.7 million people. That assumes no serious attempts to adapt to changes in water availability due to future climate change though.
Efforts in the water sector are quite advanced when it comes to water management, which helps to counteract the risk. For example, water companies have to produce five yearly Water Resource Management Plans, which look 25 years into the future and take stock of potential future changes.
So there is a risk, but the chances of widespread essential building closures can be reduced and managed by adaptation. Still, we need to acknowledge that adaptation is unlikely to make the UK 100% climate proof, as a single extreme event we have not planned for could still strike somewhere, at some point.
Could exams be moved earlier in the year in the future so students avoid the impact of the heat?
When we talk about adapting to a future climate, we sometimes mean in terms of infrastructure, e.g. improving pipe supply networks and fixing leaks, and building regulations, so that our buildings are better prepared for a more extreme climate.
But adaptation can also occur through changing social systems and the way we go about doing various things. One such example would be changing the time of year that exams take place, so that students are at less risk from the heat.
However, if buildings are adapted appropriately to deal with a warmer climate, then this may not be necessary. It’s also important to think about the knock-on effects of adaptation strategies, to make sure that they don’t have any unintended adverse consequences.
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