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Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

What the UK can learn from southern Spain about handling the heat

What the UK can learn from southern Spain about handling the heat

As the climate changes, the likes of Britain are looking to Spain for tips – and Spain is looking to Mexico

Few stereotypes irk Spaniards quite as much as the ridiculous anglosajón idea that the nation takes to its collective couch every afternoon for a three-hour siesta.

But, unlike the UK, Spain does pride itself on knowing how to cope with the heat, especially in Madrid and farther south. People know when to walk in the shade, when to keep the persianas (roller shutters) down, and when to raise and lower the toldos (awnings) to keep the sun’s rays from boring into flats and houses.

They also know that the long lunchbreak, between 2pm and 5pm, was originally intended to spare agricultural workers the worst of the furnace heat of July and August, and that an alfresco dinner is a far more pleasant proposition at 10pm or 11pm than at 6pm or 7pm.

“That timetable of staying up very late has kind of been genetically imprinted on Spaniards,” says Cayetano Torres, a spokesperson for Spain’s state meteorological agency, Aemet. “It’s basically an adaptation of the way people live and work in north Africa because of the heat. Here, you get up in the morning and go to work, but at 2pm you stop and then work from 5pm till 8pm.”

Unlike in the UK, air conditioning is almost ubiquitous in the hotter parts of Spain, and on public transport. And even before its advent, people in southern Spain knew, courtesy of the Muslims who invaded in 711, of the wonders of whitewashed houses, internal patios and water fountains.

The problem, however, is that not all of southern Spain’s weather survival strategies are suited to other parts of the country, let alone the UK.

“The weather in the north of Spain – in the Basque country, in Asturias and in Galicia – used to be like the weather in England, but now it’s 40C,” says Jaime Martínez-Urtaza, a professor of genetics and microbiology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “Houses there don’t have patios like in Andalucía; they’re stone houses with metre-thick walls. The south of Spain, like north Africa, has known how to live with heat.”

With the climate crisis “ticking over like an engine that can’t be stopped”, says Martínez-Urtaza, people in the UK will need to rethink the way they live, not least their thickly carpeted houses.

On the plus side, however, he points out that most British cities tend to have good green spaces and big green lungs – “which you don’t have in Barcelona. It’s beautiful here, but it’s pure cement.”

The relentless pace of global heating also means Spain will also have to overhaul its coping mechanisms as temperatures in some parts creep ever closer to 50C. “Is Spain well enough prepared to live under those extreme circumstances?” says Martínez-Urtaza. “I’d say no. Moving from 40C to 50C significantly changes the way you live and how you manage the day-to-day stuff.”

Both Torres and Martínez-Urtaza argue that northern Mexico and southern parts of the US are the obvious places to look for inspiration. The latter recalls a trip he made 15 years ago to the Mexican city of Mexicali, which sits on the US border.

“I wanted to know what it was like to live with 50C temperatures, even though I thought it was never something I’d have to experience where I live,” he said. “But, in under 20 years, that’s where we are.”

In Mexicali he saw people staying indoors with their aircon all day long and children coming out to play at 11pm. “People use their pools during the night because it’s impossible during the day,” he says. “The heat outside is just brutal. That’s the level of adaptation there.”

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