Why we're hardwired to ignore safety advice during a heatwave

July 12, 2018 by Rachel Harcourt, The Conversation
Credit: www.shutterstock.com

Contrary to all British summertime norms, the country has basked in seemingly endless sunshine for a while now. 18m pints of beer were drunk last weekend alone, as fans celebrated England beating Sweden in the World Cup quarter finals and temperatures hit 30°C.

While a sunny summer is undoubtedly a mood booster, unusually high temperatures and extended sun exposure also carry serious short and long term health risks. Many of these risks can be mitigated by individuals taking a few simple actions like staying in the shade, wearing sunscreen and drinking plenty of water.

Despite this, sunburnt shoulders remain a ubiquitous sight during a warm spell. In more serious terms, an extra 2,000 deaths were attributed to the 2003 heatwave, while cases of melanoma skin cancers have more than doubled in recent years.

It seems the very real and serious risks brought by hot weather are not being well heeded. So, why is it so difficult to communicate hot weather risks? In part it might be because when the sun does finally shine in the UK it tends to be viewed as a positive experience.

Research from the University of Leeds and colleagues found that when UK residents were asked to think of high temperatures, they tended to think of pleasant summer days. Added to this is the media's tendency to celebrate hot weather, encouraging the nation to sizzle and bake while the sun lasts. Those who fall victim to lobster face provide amusing asides while advice such as drinking water is criticised as overreach by the nanny state.

A dermatologist examines for evidence of skin cancer. Credit: www.shutterstock.com

The volume and tone of media coverage can determine the level of the public attach to an issue, and while the media tends to frame extreme wet weather events as "weather bombs" or "killer storms", unusually hot weather is presented as something to be enjoyed to the fullest.

While more extreme rainfall and flooding are discussed as a growing threat, heatwaves still tend to be perceived as exceptional. This is not scientifically accurate: 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred this century and a recent expert assessment categorised high temperature risks in the UK as "serious and immediate".

Despite this, another survey of UK residents by Leeds found that they perceived fewer warm summers in recent years. And while people do recognise the risks of hotter, drier summers, our ongoing research suggests that this is not something they expect the UK to be experiencing until some time in the future.

Dangerously are often presented as a concern for other countries, or for Brits, only when they visit them. Take, for example, sun screen. Adverts unanimously feature the azure waters and palm trees of tropical beaches, not the fairground rides and ice cream vans of the British seaside.

Scientists expect the UK to experience more frequent hot and dry summers as the UK's weather patterns shift under a changing climate. This is likely to exacerbate existing health risks as well as challenge built infrastructure and even cultural norms and habits. Short term coping behaviours like staying hydrated and wearing sunscreen will become even more essential, but so will the need for longer term adaptations.

Being able to effectively communicate that heat waves are extreme risks for UK residents will be even more necessary. This is never an easy message to deliver but especially not when the sun's out and the football's on.

Explore further: Measuring the risks of extreme temperatures on public health

Related Stories

Australia has hottest winter on record

September 1, 2017

Australia experienced its hottest winter on record this year amid a long-term warming trend largely attributed to climate change, the weather bureau said Friday.

Will the weather get worse in 2018? What the experts say

January 12, 2018

Last year unleashed some catastrophic weather across the world. At the beginning of 2017, Australia experienced one of the hottest summers on record in Sydney and Brisbane, followed by a killer summer heatwave across southern ...

Recommended for you

Propping up glaciers to avoid cataclysmic sea level rise

September 20, 2018

As global warming outpaces efforts to tame it, scientists have proposed building massive underwater structures to prevent an Antarctic glacier the size of Britain from sliding into the sea and lifting the world's oceans by ...

NASA balloon mission captures electric blue clouds

September 20, 2018

On the cusp of our atmosphere live a thin group of seasonal electric blue clouds. Forming 50 miles above the poles in summer, these clouds are known as noctilucent clouds or polar mesospheric clouds—PMCs. A recent NASA ...

Study tracks Hurricane Harvey stormwater with GPS

September 20, 2018

Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water on southeast Texas in late August 2017, making it the wettest recorded hurricane in U.S. history. But after the storm passed, where did all that water go?

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

24volts
not rated yet Jul 12, 2018
That kind of depends on whether enough ice gets melted up north to dump enough fresh water into the Gulfstream cycle so it stops, doesn't it? If that stops they are not going to have hot summers anymore since it's what keeps the place reasonably warm to begin with as I understand it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.