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April / May 2013
Should We Panic?
by Stacey Dunne, website research volunteer
In recent weeks Ireland’s weather has been everything but ordinary. What does this unseasonal weather me, is the end nigh? The answer is no, not yet! Although, the recent cold snap has put people’s opinions about Global Warming and Climate Change back into focus, people are still divided and unsure of what exactly is happening to Ireland’s and our Earth’s climate.
Ireland’s climate can be described as a temperate oceanic, with mild, moist weather with a general lack of temperature extremes. The difference between our climate and our weather is time. Any countries climate is defined by a pattern of weather that expands for thirty years or more, with day to day changes in atmospheric pressure, rainfall and sunshine defining our weather. It is evident though that the change in recent decades in our weather patterns is most likely an indicator of climate change. Are we going through a climatic shift?
Record floods and cold snaps have been more present in the last decade than in the last century. Our recent cold weather, however, can be explained as nothing but a weather phenomenon: In March the country was caught in an Artic phenomenon known as Artic Oscillation; cold polar air moved southwards towards the lower latitudes, resulting in below average temperatures being recorded throughout much of Europe – which in itself is not unusual. Sceptics of global warming, however, have used cold weather periods in the last few years to disprove that the world is actually getting warmer. This is simply not the case – the world is getting warmer. This recent occurrence of cold unseasonal weather is not so much a picture of what is to come due to climate change but more of a brief weather phenomenon.
What would Ireland’s future look like? With the warmest Christmas and coldest March on record in the last two years it is evident that something is changing. Climate forecasts suggest that in years to come there will be an increase in minimum winter temperatures over Ireland of about one degree Celsius in the period 2021 to 2050. This is then set to rise to about 2.5 degrees Celsius in the period 2071 to 2100. One might think that an increase in 1 degree is harmless, that is simply not the case.
Worldwide, an average increase of one degree across the entire surface of the Earth would mean huge changes in climatic extremes. Even if Greenhouse Gas emissions stopped overnight, the amount already in the atmosphere would still mean a global rise of between 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius. Terrifyingly, it has already been calculated that with such an increase fresh water would be eliminated from a third of the world’s land surface by 2100. With rapid melting of the Arctic ice sheet occurring it seems that there is no way of reversing what has already been done.
Ice reflects 80% of the sun’s heat, whereas the darker depths of the world’s oceans absorb up to 95% of the solar radiation. Thus, ice-caps melt; freshwater is added to the ocean causing an increase in surface area in which solar radiation can be absorbed. Unfortunately, this is not the only threat that the oceans hold. Low-lying countries, islands and mainland coats will be preparing for extinction as sea levels rise by 2.5 foot by 2050. Islands across the world, especially in the Pacific, will simply no longer exist. Super-Storms such as hurricane Sandy, which struck the East coast of America last year, will become more frequent in occurrence, as the oceans water temperature rise. Further, such events will become bigger in size, force and above all impact millions of people living in populated coastal areas.
Of course these events will impact every country but how exactly will Ireland be affected? What has happened globally is mirrored by events happening in Ireland. Research shows, that Ireland has already started to warm by 0.128 degrees Celsius per decade in the last fifty years. In the case of Ireland, warming does not mean that the whole country will enjoy actual summer temperatures and even milder winters but instead a dramatic change in rainfall. Observed trends confirm that there will be an 11% increase in rainfall in the west of the country by mid-century. This increase will definitely affect the frequency of floods. A one in fifty years event will become, by 2050, a one in five years event. This will affect all people living near low-lying rivers and on flood-plains. Infrastructure will have to be built to cope with these drastic changes.
Summers in the east of Ireland are going to become drier, with an overall decrease in rainfall by 25-40%. Considering there are already water shortages throughout Dublin this does not bode well for the future as there are no alternative water resources for the eastern region as of yet. Though after the winter we have just had, longer drier summers in the east may seem welcoming, but there are many concerns. With a decrease in rainfall especially in August plants and vegetables such as potatoes will not be getting the water they need to grow. An increase in temperature and a decrease in rainfall with also result in stunted growth of grass. Consequences of this are severe. Animals, such as cattle would be at significant risk as it would be too hot for them to be kept outside and there would be a severe lack in food supply, as their food resource would be stunted. With ground saturated in the west and dry conditions in the east, the consequences for farmers and people of small-holdings are without doubt extreme.
Although Ireland will not feel the full force of climate change and global warming for another few decades we should be under no illusion that we will not be affected. The amount of food that is imported into the country illustrates this all too perfectly. Coffee, cocoa, chocolate, oranges and tea are all imported. The countries where all these products are produced are not immune to climate change and eventually production of these may decline or even stop. It is hard to say when this will happen but the main thing to understand is that it will happen and the world as we know it will change.