How will climate change affect the UK?

Long and frequent summer heatwaves, more intense storms and flooding – and even freezing winters – are all signs of how global warming is affecting the UK


Most people will have noticed that it’s definitely getting hotter in the UK. Multiple and lengthy summer heatwaves, and sometimes February or April heatwaves, are far more common now than in previous decades.

Climate change isn’t just hotter weather. Warmer temperatures also mean there’s more moisture in the air, which means more severe storms and flooding. And even extremely cold snaps are now thought to be down to climate change.

How is climate change already affecting the UK?

Some of us have already experienced the effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather. Relentless summer heatwaves, however welcome they seem, are a key effect of climate change in the UK. They’re even leading to more and more wildfires across the country.

Storms and flooding are getting worse and happening more often – costing people their homes and lives.

More storms, plus sea level rises, are gradually eroding coastlines around the British Isles. And all of these changes aren’t good for plant and animal species.


Most of the UK now knows what it’s like to live through an extreme heatwave. The UK declares a heatwave when daily maximum temperatures meet or exceed a set temperature (which is different for each county) for three days in a row.

Extreme heat can be a serious health risk for those with heart and lung conditions, and more deaths are recorded in the UK during heatwave days. Heatwave deaths now reach into the many thousands in the UK.

Heatwaves in cities can also cause spikes in toxic air pollution, causing breathing difficulties and developmental problems in children.


The UK is now facing frequent record-breaking winter floods. Sometimes people die in these floods, and they can do untold damage to homes and livelihoods, sometimes in the same places, year after year.

As temperatures warm, it rains more heavily. This is partly because warmer air can hold more moisture – meaning more intense rainfall. Severe flooding often follows long droughts in the UK – because dried-out soil cannot absorb heavy rains.


While UK wildfires are small in comparison to those in  places like North America, Australia and the Amazon, they are on the rise.

Large wildfires create air pollution, and can come at a cost to local economies. They may damage important habitats for UK wildlife, including national parks, ancient woodland and peatlands.

Cold weather

Even unusually cold weather is a sign of climate change in the UK. Global warming is starting to destabilise the Gulf Stream, which is what makes UK winters generally milder and wetter than other parts of northern Europe. The result is unusually cold weather (like a ‘Beast from the East’), bringing snow and freezing temperatures further south than usual.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion

Climate change’s overall global effect on sea levels – plus the increase in rainfall and storm surges, and the ability of waves to wash away land – is already affecting a few parts of the UK.

The sea is so close to Fairbourne in Wales – featured in the video below – the whole village needs to be relocated.

Norfolk is another part of the UK that is facing sea level rise and erosion, and storms have led to the collapse of coastal railway lines in Devon and Cornwall.

And while it seems dramatic to think that sea levels could rise so much that whole cities and coastlines are swallowed, scientists do believe it is possible. A worst case scenario could see up to nine metres of sea level rise, with a global average temperature rise of 4ºC above pre-industrial levels.

See what that means for different parts of the UK in this projection map, which also includes the sea level rise at 2ºC of warming.

Loss of species’ habitats and threats of extinction

Even without extreme weather, a warming climate means a lot of changes to ecosystems, including habitats for some of the UK’s most iconic species.

Warmer seas and unstable climates bring more threats of extinction. This could be through changes to food chains, because of new predators or simply inhospitable living conditions for Britain’s favourite animals and sea creatures.

Seabirds, puffins, white-beaked dolphins, cod and Atlantic salmon are all found living in and around UK waters. Warming seas will drive species away or make it harder for them to reproduce, disrupting the food chain and compounding problems like overfishing.

What impacts will climate change have on the UK in future?

As temperatures rise, so will the risk of deadly heatwaves and destructive storms and flooding. If you’ve not experienced flooding in your own area, it might seem like climate change won’t really affect you. But in many parts of the UK, flood risk is going up dramatically.

Significant flooding could impact two or three million people across the country if temperatures reach 2ºC or 3ºC above pre-industrial levels, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Despite this, thousands of new homes are still being built within high risk flood zones, and thousands of flood defences are in poor condition.

All these impacts of climate change on the UK can be avoided through reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This means stopping using fossil fuels and moving to renewable energy, among other solutions. The good news is that scientists now believe the impact of reducing emissions on temperatures would be immediate.

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