Snow in Teesdale, hail in Birmingham, floods in Essex, and what felt like a touch of frost on the first morning of the first test at Lords (admittedly, rarely a balmy occasion). With a miserable May following the wettest April for a century, it must be tempting to peer up at the gloom and wonder, whatever happened to global warming? Louise Mensch did just that this week and the Tory MP soon attracted criticism after tweeting: “Wow. We really do need more windfarms on land to combat all this dreadful global warming. #rain”.
There’s a jolly Armstrong and Miller sketch in which Ben Miller’s remark about global warming, while gazing out at the rain, precipitates a government warning that people will be jailed if they don’t learn the difference between climate, a long-term trend over many years, and weather, which is what is going on outside the window right now.
Suitably re-educated, Miller gazes at the downpour and notes: “Look at this weather, eh? Still, I’m sure it will all even out statistically to illustrate a long-term warming trend.”
Weather. There’s a lot of it about. And it is tempting to look for deeper meaning in the very ordinary vicissitudes of spring. We may be settling into a typically rubbish British summer but the weather is about the media (where “blasts” are always “Arctic”) and the Met Office (where a hurricane was infamously not on its way the night before “the Great Storm” of 1987) engaging in a ceaseless tango, the former desperate to wheedle an apocalyptic or optimistic pronouncement from the latter. Occasionally, the Met Office gets scorched, such as when they made their infamous long-term forecast of 2009 which was spun by the press into a guarantee of a “barbecue summer”. (It was rained off.) Mostly, however, the forecasters stick closely to an understated script.
“After one of the warmest Marches and the wettest Aprils, now we’re back to normal,” says Charlie Powell, forecaster at the Met Office. “It’s just British spring-time weather. It’s just all normal variability and that’s what we’ve seen to textbook standards in the last couple of months.”
Hang on! What textbook features the driest March for 59 years followed by the wettest April in 101 years? At least Dr Barnaby Smith of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology calls this spring “remarkable” for its shift from nearly two years of dry weather. “What happened in April was definitely not normal,” says Smith.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that extreme weather events will become more frequent with global warming, but abnormal British weather is no such thing. For all our fickle skies, Britain (hottest day ever: 38.5C, Faversham, Kent, 2003; coldest -15.9C, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, 1995) doesn’t do extremes. The IPCC is predicting an increase in the frequency and magnitude of warm temperature extremes – and, possibly, patterns of precipitation – but climate scientists admit they have no idea whether events such as floods and even cyclones and hurricanes will become more or less frequent. And a chilly spell isn’t the start of an ice age. (For the whatever-happened-to-global-warming brigade, April was the fifth warmest on record worldwide; for precipitation pessimists, Britain has basked in 22 out of 24 months of below average rainfall.)
“When you talk about climate change or global warming you don’t link it to a small area or a small space of time,” chides Powell when I ask if our weird spring is linked to climate change. Snow in May, as the Met Office points out, is nothing special. The last time we saw it was way back in 2011, and again in 2010. On 2 May 1979, snow was reported at 342 weather stations across Britain. As the naturalist Richard Mabey writes in A Brush With Nature, “Our climatic folk memory is notoriously short and erratic, and full of gloomy mythology whose only silver lining is a vague belief in ancient Golden Summers. It is as if, living in a part of the world where the weather will always be capricious, we daren’t allow ourselves the luxury of remembering particular weather instances for fear of developing foolhardy expectations.”
Mabey challenges his readers to remember the summer of 1983 (the hottest July for 300 years) and the great summer of 1975 (no, not 1976, which everyone remembers because it led to drought) which started on 6 June after snowfalls on the 2nd. Mabey recalls rather more precisely than most of us because he kept a weather diary for 20 years (although he’s given it up now because it got too repetitive).
Most people who might be devastated by our weird weather are surprisingly phlegmatic. Visit England must worry that their expensive ad campaign – featuring Stephen Fry, Rupert Grint and Julie Walters – will be washed out by the weather. “You don’t go to the Peak District to sunbathe,” says Sarah Long of Visit England. Forced by the financial squeeze into staycations back in 2009, we keep masochistically coming back for more, apparently. “We’re fairly resilient,” says Long. “Although it’s great when the sun comes out, England is an all-weather destination.”
Farmers, too, known to grumble about the weather now and again, are still thankful for the downpours after two dry winters. Drought status has been lifted in 19 areas of south-west England, the Midlands and parts of Yorkshire, although groundwater levels in much of the south and east, where hosepipe bans remain, are still low. “It’s possibly surprised some people that groundwater levels have recharged as much as they have,” says Smith at the Centre for Hydrology & Ecology. But there still needs to be at least a summer of average rainfall before aquifers in the south and east return to a healthier level. “The rainfall has bought us some time but we’re not back to normal,” says Smith. “Whatever normal is.”
Worried about the drought in March, farmers now face a new challenge, according to Luke Ryder, dairy adviser for the National Farmers Union – getting out on to their waterlogged land. It is too wet for many farmers to put their cattle out, or get the first crop of silage in.
“In no way are farmers complaining,” says Ryder. “We were praying to the rain gods.”
The hidden cost of this miserable May, however, may be on our wildlife. “It’s bloody awful,” says Matthew Oates of the National Trust. “It’s disastrous.” The weather is hammering bird life and anything that lives in a burrow. Four thousand puffins – birds who live in burrows – have been washed out of their nests on the Farne Islands. Coots, moorhens and great-crested grebes, which make nests close to the water, have been swamped by rising waterlines, according to Dave Leech of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Birds that nest on the ground or live close to wetland habitat, such as meadow pipits and reed buntings, have also fallen victim to the rains.
Secret World, the animal rescue centre in Somerset, reports a 50% increase in admissions of baby badgers, foxes and rabbits this spring, flooded out of homes. The centre has also seen an increase in admissions of adult barn owls, tawny owls and buzzards, which have become too bedraggled to fly in the wet, or seen their hunting grounds completely submerged. There haven’t been many baby birds because, says founder Pauline Kidner, all the nests were abandoned or failed in the April monsoon.
As Oates points out, garden birds at least are able to have a second attempt at nest-building and could still successfully rear young. And while blocking weather systems delayed the arrival of long-distance migrants such as swifts and reed warblers by as much as two weeks, these birds should still be able to make up time and breed successfully.
May, says Leech, head of the nest records scheme at the BTO, is “a pivotal month”. Unless it gets warmer and sunnier, there won’t be much bird food about. “We’ve moved from habitat drought stress to habitat saturation, but the cold weather is really having a huge impact on the food chain,” adds Oates. “It’s been a disastrous time for winged insects – hoverflies, bees, moths and butterflies.”
This weekend marks the start of Save Our Butterflies Week – and they need it: two of the most endangered butterflies in Britain, the Duke of Burgundy and the Pearl-Bordered Fritillary, only fly in early spring; after enjoying a revival in the glories of April 2011, it’s back to square one this year. “Square one being the lowest point ever in their recorded history,” says Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation. In the rain and cold, adult butterflies cannot find mates or lay eggs to create caterpillars. And the role of most caterpillars? Bird food. “Insects are generally very heavily reliant on temperature and climate,” says Fox. The lack of winged insects will have “knock-on effects for predators further up the food chain and for plants as well, which rely on pollinators such as bees.”
Nevertheless, even fragile-looking winged creatures are surprisingly robust. Many butterflies will sit out a week of rain under a leaf.
Mabey was wondering about this year’s swifts – a notable absence screaming around our villages and towns – but when he visited Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk this week he found thousands of this dynamic summer migrant whizzing low over the reeds. “Needs must is the rule in bad weather, not surrender,” says Mabey. As Fox points out, the whole ecosystem is not going to fall apart. “Wildlife is used to weather,” he says, “but the real concern is over the rarer species that have already been much reduced by human activity and can ill-afford too many bad seasons.”
Butterflies are useful bellwethers; because they are so well studied, and so sensitive to the changing climate, they provide strong clues as to how other insects are adapting to weird weather. Over recent, warmer decades, many winged creatures have moved north through Europe.
But a fascinating study published in Nature Climate Change this year showed that birds and butterflies are not keeping pace with their natural climatic zone. Birds and butterflies are sensitive to small changes in average temperatures and so reside in a “climate space” where they can find food, breed and thrive. But with shifting climatic patterns, butterflies are lagging an average of 135km behind their natural climatic zone; birds are 212km behind.
Our flora and fauna may heave a collective sigh of relief if the Met Office is correct and we really are heading for a “distinctly average” 30 days. The south and east are likely to get a bit more rainfall than average, the north a bit less and the Met is really sticking its neck out to predict temperatures “around or a little bit below average” for June.
We are only human, however, and the weather gods love to mock us. Just after the Met forecast a drier than average April/May/June, the deluge began. Apart from a hosepipe ban, there is no better rain dance than the prediction of a barbecue summer. And so “distinctly average” can only be a good thing, can’t it?
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