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Somerset at the front line of climate change in the UK

Jonathan Coate making Willow Basket in Somerset, U.K.

Jonathan Coate at work making a willow basket at PH Coate & Son. Photograph: Sam Frost


Powered by article titled “Somerset at the front line of climate change in the UK” was written by Steven Morris and Damian Carrington, for on Thursday 26th September 2013 08.58 UTC

Bonfire night always reminds Jonathan Coate, whose family has grown and harvested willow on the Somerset Levels for almost 200 years, of the changing climate all around him. When he was a boy the workers used to stoke up the fire on Guy Fawkes using the offcuts of harvested willow sticks, but no longer. They do not even begin harvesting until December because the late autumn and early winter have become so mild in this tucked-away corner of south-west England. By 5 November there are no offcuts for the fire.

“We are witnessing climate change right here and now,” said Coate. “The harvesting season has moved. We’re having longer, wetter winters with some harsh cold snaps and some very miserable summers. We don’t know what a normal year is anymore, which makes it hard to plan ahead.”

The Somerset Levels may well become one of the UK’s climate change front-lines. Mostly just a few metres above sea level, this marshy land has been reclaimed from the water by man over the centuries but remains prone to flooding.

Last year many parts of the area including much of Coate’s land were devastated by floods that caused havoc in the spring and then again the late autumn. There were complaints that local authorities, the Environment Agency (EA) and the government was not doing enough to protect businesses and homes.

It will probably get worse. A report published by Somerset county council warns of winters up to 30% wetter and summers as much as 55% drier by the 2080s. The report predicts more violent storms and rises in sea level which could have “severe impacts on the coastal and low-lying areas of the county”, adding: “This increase in flooding risk presents the most urgent of the challenges to be dealt with in adapting to climate change in Somerset.” In the worst-case scenario, according to the report, around 6,200 square kilometres of land here could be under water and some 32,500 properties at risk.

Across the UK, increased flooding is by far the greatest threat from global warming. The government’s adaption plan for climate change reports that the cost of damage to homes in England and Wales from river and coastal flooding, would double to over £1bn a year by the 2020s.

Further disruption to business properties, power plants, roads, railways and hospitals and the growing threat of flash flooding is likely to double this figure again.

Conversely, the adaption plan projects more summer droughts and wildfires, concluding that up to 59 million people could be affected by water shortages come 2060. Mega-heatwaves like the 2003 event that hit western Europe are set to become up to 10 times more likely by 2050.

This could increase summer heat deaths as well as buckling railways and melting roads more often and there could also be an increase in skin cancers.

Wi-fi and other communications are at risk as increased heavy rain affects signal reliability and drier summers and wetter winters cause masts to subside. The impact of climate change across the world such as rises in food prices and broken supply chains will be felt in the UK.

In this changed world it the fear is that even if solutions are found to combat the flooding threat, places like the Levels could become more difficult to live in and more isolated.

One of Coates’ neighbours, Taunton Deane district councillor Gill Slattery, was so frustrated at the lack of help flood victims received last year that she took in a smelly sample of soil to the local authority’s offices to make sure fellow members realised what life was like on the sodden moors following the downpours.

Money is now being provided to dredge the river, which residents hope will help, but it is a short-term fix. Farmers are telling Slattery that they are trying to acquire bits of high ground to make sure that even at times of severe flooding there are places for their livestock and equipment to move to.

Slattery said she felt that the government sometimes neglected country-dwellers in favour of the city. “People here are worried that the sort of floods we had last year will become more frequent because of climate change.”

One of the oldest locals, Diana Mallows, who has lived in a farmhouse on the banks of the river Tone for more than 40 years, agrees. “I don’t think those in power care very much about the little person way out in the countryside,” she said.


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