Welcome to the climate rollercoaster, or what is being called the “new normal” of weather. What was, until quite recently, predictable, temperate, mild and pleasant British weather, guaranteed to be warmish and wettish, ensuring green lawns in August, now sees the seasons reversed and temperature and rainfall records broken almost every year. When Kent receives as much rain (4mm) in May as Timbuktu, Manchester has more sunshine than Marbella, and soils in southern England are drier than those in Egypt, something is happening.
In the last 10 days drought zones have been declared across much of England and Wales, yet Scotland has just registered its wettest-ever May. The warmest British spring in 100 years followed one of the coldest UK winters in 300 years. June in London has been colder than March. February was warm enough to strip Snowdon, but last Saturday it snowed there.
Words like “remarkable”, “unprecedented” and “shocking” have been used to describe the recent weather of Britain, but the extremes we are experiencing in 2011 are nothing to the scale of what has been taking place elsewhere recently.
Last year, more than 2m sq km of eastern Europe and Russia scorched. An extra 50,000 people died as temperatures stayed more than 6C above normal for many weeks, crops were devastated and hundreds of giant wild fires broke out. The price of wheat and other foods rose as two-thirds of the continent experienced its hottest summer in around 500 years.
This year, it’s western Europe’s turn for a mega-heatwave, with 16 countries, including France, Switzerland and Germany (and Britain on the periphery), experiencing extreme dryness. The blame is being blamed on El Niño and La Niña, naturally occurring but poorly understood events that follow heating and cooling of the Pacific ocean near the equator, bringing floods and droughts.
Vast areas of Europe have received less than half the rainfall they would normally get in March, April and May, temperatures have been off the scale for the time of year, nuclear power stations have been in danger of having to be shut down because they need so much river water to cool them, and boats along many of Europe’s main rivers have been grounded because of low flows. In the past week, the great European spring drought has broken in many places as massive storms and flash floods have left the streets of Germany and France running like rivers.
But for real extremes in 2011, look to Australia, China and the southern US. In Queeensland, Australia, an area the size of Germany and France was flooded in December and January in what was called the country’s “worst natural disaster”.
In China, a “once-in-a-100-years” drought in southern and central regions has this year dried up hundreds of reservoirs, rivers and water courses, evaporating drinking supplies and stirring up political tensions. The government responded with a massive rain-making operation, firing thousands of rockets to “seed” clouds with silver iodide and other chemicals. It may have worked: for whatever reason, the heavens opened last week, a record 30cm of rain fell in some places in 24 hours, floods and mudslides killed 94 people, and tens of thousands of people have lost their homes.
Meanwhile, north America’s most deadly and destructive tornado season ever saw 600 “twisters” in April alone, and 138 people killed in Joplin, Missouri, by a mile-wide whirlwind. Arizona has had some of the largest wildfires they have known, and the greatest flood in recorded US history is occurring along sections of the Missouri river. This is all taking place during a deepening drought in Texas and other southern states – the eighth year of “exceptional” drought there in the past 12 years.
In Mexico, the temperature peaked at 48.8C in April, the warmest anywhere in the world that month, and nearly half the country is now affected by drought. There have already been 9,000 wildfires, and the biggest farm union says that more than 3.5 million farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy because they cannot feed their cattle or grow crops.
Wherever you look, the climate appears to be in overdrive, with stronger weather patterns gripping large areas for longer and events veering between extremes. Last year, 17 countries experienced record temperatures.
Sceptics argue that there have always been droughts and floods, freak weather, heatwaves and temperature extremes, but what concerns most climate scientists and observers is that the extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, their intensity is growing and the trends all suggest long-term change as greenhouse gases steadily build in the atmosphere.
So, can anyone really now conclude that our climate is not changing? Let’s not call it global warming – that seems to be too emotive for people – but climate change it is, and we need to address it before it’s too late.