The language of heatwaves

 (Level B1 and above: article and vocabulary connected to heatwaves, climate change and glass buildings)

Written and compiled by Benedicte Gravrand, English trainer at The Language House in Geneva


This summer, the sun is beating down on the Northern Hemisphere.

In southern Europe, the nights are not cool enough to offset the days’ sweltering heat. The heatwaves and droughts have sparked wildfires. People are dying of heatstroke. The organisers of the Tour de France watered the roads to stop them from melting. Veterinarians are asking people not to shave (raser) their pets (the fur helps to keep them cool). In the UK, some temperatures that were thought to be impossible came to pass, affecting schools, hospitals, railways and runways. Parts of America are going through one of their hottest summers. In parts of eastern and central China, the mercury has risen above 40 degrees; factories are cranking up the air conditioning (AC), but because AC units use too much energy, electricity is being rationed.

  1. Offset: to balance the effect of something. Donations to charities can be offset against tax.
  2. Beat down: if the sun beats down, it shines very brightly making the weather very hot.
  3. Sweltering: extremely hot and unpleasant
  4. Heatwave: a period of very hot weather
  5. Heatstroke: a serious medical condition caused by doing too much physical activity in hot weather
  6. Runway: a long road used by planes when they land and take off
  7. Blaze: a large fire that causes a lot of damage. Firefighters were called to a blaze at a warehouse yesterday.
  8. Wildfire: a fire that starts in an area of countryside and spreads very quickly
  9. Drought: a long period of time when there is little or no rain and crops die. The region is experiencing a severe drought.
  10. Spark: to make something happen / to start a fire or explosion. A faulty electric blanket sparked a fire in one of the bedrooms.
  11. Melt: to change a solid substance into a liquid. Melt the butter in a small saucepan.
  12. Crank up: to increase the level or degree. We’ll have to crank up the air conditioning tonight.
  13. Air conditioning (AC): a system that makes the air inside a building, room, or vehicle colder

Scientists agree that global warming increases the chances of heatwaves happening – but at the same time, too little is being done to achieve net-zero emissions. The world is already on average 1.1-1.3°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times and as we continue to use fossil fuel, it is set to get warmer yet. We have a wicked problem on our hands.

  1. Achieve: to succeed in doing something. We have achieved what we set out to do.
  2. Net-zero emissions: refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere.
  3. Fossil fuel: a fuel such as coal or oil.

See our recent blogs: Problems, difficulties, dilemmas, enigmas, paradoxes and predicaments



Greenhouses in global warming

Now the last place you want to hide during the scorching heat is a glass building – even if it offers great views. They act like a greenhouse. Using AC to cool down is not the solution because AC consumes a lot of energy and ends up contributing to more greenhouse gas emissions (émissions de gaz à effet de serre), and therefore global warming. And it heats the city streets even more.

One absurd example of street heating is the Walkie-Talkie building, a glass skyscraper with curved exterior walls in the City of London. In the summer of 2013, its south side, covered in concave reflective glass, mirrored the sun’s rays like a magnifying glass (loupe) and burnt a part of a street and everything in it.

Despite all that and against common sense,  glass buildings and skyscrapers are being built everywhere – when they should become obsolete.


  1. Scorching: extremely hot
  2. Common sense: the ability to use good judgment and make sensible decisions. Let’s use a little common sense here.
  3. Skyscraper: a very tall building containing offices or flats
  4. Obsolete: no longer used because of being replaced by something newer and more effective. Most computer hardware rapidly becomes obsolete.
  5. Greenhouse: a building made of glass that is used for growing plants that need protection from the weather
  6. End up: o be in a particular place or state after doing something or because of doing it. Somehow they all ended up at my house.
  7. Ray: a line of light that you can see coming from the sun or a lamp
  8. Despite: something happens even though something else might have prevented it. Three more nuclear power stations were built despite widespread opposition.

Politicians and associations have  called for bans on all-glass buildings in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. But with little progress.

Furthermore, many buildings – glass or not – in Northern Europe are not equipped for heatwaves.

“The UK’s buildings and offices aren’t designed for temperatures in the high 30Cs, let alone the 40Cs,” said Chris Bennett, co-founder of sustainability services company Evora Global, recently.


“A stiflingly hot office is not a pleasant or productive place to be. Extreme heat will render some workplaces unusable, or barely usable. Some will be practically deserted as working from home re-emerges. …. If heatwaves become a permanent fixture, cooling our buildings could cost more and more and create more emissions. Those emissions contribute to climate change, so it could lock us into a vicious cycle…”

  1. Ban: an official statement ordering people not to do, sell, or use something. There is a total ban on smoking anywhere in the college.
  2. Let alone: used for saying that something is even less likely to happen than another unlikely thing. I hardly have time to think these days, let alone relax.
  3. Stifling: so hot that it is difficult for you to breathe
  4. Barely: used for saying that something is almost not possible. He was so dizzy he could barely stand.
  5. Usable: available or suitable to be used for a particular purpose. The system can convert waste chemicals into usable energy.
  6. Fixture: something that is fixed, that is always there. Their display could become a fixture of the show.
  7. Vicious cycle (or vicious circle): when a problem causes other problems, and this makes the original problem worse. the vicious circle of unemployment and homelessness
  8. Release: (in this context) to let something spread into an area. Oxygen from the water is released into the atmosphere.
  9. Shade: a screen or cover that protects something from the sun
  10. Suitable: right for a particular purpose, person or situation. This film is not suitable for young children.
  11. Renewable energy: forms of energy for providing electricity, for example from the sun or wind.

However, there is progress on the architectural front: some newer glass buildings use special types of glass that can become more opaque to block sunshine in hot weather, or even generate electricity themselves, such as the Edge building in Amsterdam.


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The best buildings for climate change

With global warming in mind, here are some suitable building material and ways to cool a building:

  1. Horizontal shading (overhangs and louvres (persiennes)) outside your windows, or external shutters (volets),
  2. Roofs (toits) painted with special pigments designed to reflect solar radiation, and solar glazing (vitrage) on windows,
  3. Buildings made of stone or bricks have better thermal mass – the ability to absorb and release heat slowly,
  4. Concrete (béton) also has a high thermal mass but it takes a lot of energy to produce it, so hybrid systems (timber (bois) mixed with concrete for example) can counterbalance this problem,
  5. There is a new material called phase change material (PCM), which has even greater thermal mass than stone or concrete,
  6. Cooling systems made of water evaporation and natural ventilation,
  7. Or simply power the AC with renewable energy.

Source: Science Alert


Hot expressions

  • “I’m roasting.” (feeling so hot that you are uncomfortable, from the verb “roast”, which means cooking in an oven).
  • I’m sweating like a pig.” (sweat: transpirer)
  • “What a scorcher!” (an extremely hot day)
  • “It’s so hot, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” (sidewalk: the pavement by the side of the road)
  • “It’s like an oven out there.”
  • “It’s really muggy today.” (hot and humid)

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

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