Record heat reached in Paris as Britain faces hottest day ever

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By Linda Givetash and Nancy Ing  with NBC News World News
Image: UK weather
England's Jack Leach cools down with a towel in a drinks break during the second day of the test match between England and Ireland at Lord's cricket ground in London, on July 25, 2019.   -  Copyright  Kirsty Wigglesworth

LONDON — The United Kingdom recorded its hottest July day on Thursday in a heatwave that also shattered temperature records in Paris and suffocated much of Europe.

The U.K.'s Met Office said the mercury hit 98.4 degrees at London's Heathrow airport before 2 p.m. local time, making it the country's hottest day ever for the month of July. Paris also reached a stunning 105 degrees at 1:36 p.m. local time, according to the French meteorological agency Météo-France.

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As Britons endured delayed trains, suffocating subways and baking homes as the Met Office said the country's record highest temperature of 101.3-degree could still be surpassed as the afternoon wore on.

Although the sky-high temperatures were expected to be short-lived with rain forecasted to bring reprieve to Britain on Friday, experts warn that extreme heat has become the new normal with climate change. The past four years were the hottest on record globally and the World Meteorological Organization has warned this year is expected to be the same.

A report released Thursday by the U.K.-based Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management found that while Britain has progressed on commitments to reduce emissions, plans to adapt to climate change are sorely lacking. It reiterated similar findings by the government's committee on climate change released earlier in the month.

Infrastructure, such as roads and housing, and emergency planning and response need to catch up with the current and future challenges posed by extreme weather.

Southeastern Railway, which covers areas most impacted by Thursday's heat in England, warned there would be reduced service because of the heat. Metal tracks risk buckling in temperatures above 122 degrees, the railway said, requiring speed restrictions to be enforced to maintain safety.

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Last year, disruptions to network rail in Britain due to heat resulted in losses in the range of £40 million ($50 million) for operators, Alastair Chisholm, director of policy at the institute, told NBC News.

The bulk of housing in Britain wasn't designed to acclimate to such high temperatures and often lacks central air conditioning. Government programs incentivizing upgrades to home insulation, for example, have largely disappeared in recent years due to austerity measures, Chisholm said.

The rest of Europe faces similar concerns about the effects of the heat on infrastructure. Architect Philippe Villeneuve told NBC News he's concerned the high temperatures could further damage the Notre Dame cathedral that was charred in a fire earlier this year.

Villneuve explained that the stone walls that were exposed to flames then saturated with water by firefighters could now dry out rapidly, causing the vaulted ceilings to become unstable and collapse.

These are not just problems of inconvenience but have wider effects on the economy.

"We know when people are too hot they become less productive, so even if they make it in to work with the infrastructure not working as it should, they might be less productive," said Bob Ward, director of policy and communications for the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

Urban centers like London can also be "doubly lethal," Ward explained, because the cement buildings and roads absorb more heat, driving temperatures up. The bright sunshine reflecting off infrastructure also results in a chemical reaction that worsens air pollution, putting people with respiratory problems at greater risk, he said.

If the financial implications of the heat waves weren't incentive enough for cities and countries to adapt, Ward added, "I hope that risk to people's lives is the primary driver."

Extreme heat has proven to be deadly. In 2003, a heatwave resulted in over 50,000 deaths across Europe.

Last year, Britain saw more than 800 people die in connection with four extreme heat events throughout the summer, Ward said.

"It might be worth for us to consider giving heatwaves names as we started to give winter storms names," he suggested. "It's about recognizing heatwaves as potential public health emergencies."