How will climate change affect the UK?

Those heatwaves, storms, flooding and long freezing winters the UK's getting more of now? These are all the effects of climate change.

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The effects of climate change are a result of a rise in average temperatures globally, from burning fossil fuels. But what specifically does global warming mean for the UK?

Most people will have noticed that it’s definitely getting hotter in the UK. Summer heatwaves, and sometimes February or April heatwaves, are far more common now than in previous decades. That’s because the average temperature over the last decade in the UK has been 0.8°C warmer than the 1961–1990 average. This warming has disrupted our normal climate patterns.

Climate change isn’t just hotter weather. Warmer temperatures also mean there’s more moisture in the air, which means more severe storms and flooding. And even extremely cold snaps are now thought to be down to climate change.

How is climate change already affecting the UK?

Some of us have already experienced the effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather. Relentless summer heatwaves, however welcome they seem, are a key effect of climate change in the UK. They’re even leading to more and more wildfires across the country.

Storms and flooding are getting worse and happening more often – costing people their homes and lives.

More storms, plus sea level rises, are gradually eroding coastlines around the British Isles. And all of these changes aren’t good for plant and animal species.

Heatwaves

Most of the UK now knows what it’s like to live through an extreme heatwave. In the UK, heatwaves are considered extreme beyond the 30ºC mark.

A record high of 38.7ºC was recorded on 25 July 2019, in Cambridge, and the longest stretch of extreme heatwave temperatures was recorded in August 2020.

Extreme heat can be a serious health risk for those with heart and lung conditions, and more deaths are recorded in the UK during heatwave days. Heatwave deaths now reach into the many thousands in the UK

Heatwaves in cities can also cause spikes in toxic air pollution, causing breathing difficulties and developmental problems in children.

Flooding

The UK is now facing frequent record-breaking winter floods. People sometimes die in these floods, and they do untold damage to homes and livelihoods, sometimes year after year.

February 2020 was the wettest February on record. That month, Storms Dennis, Ciara and George left thousands of homes flooded and many more without power.

Wildfires

While UK wildfires are small in comparison to those in California in the US, Australia and the Amazon, they are on the rise. 

From less than 100 fires across the country altogether from 2011–17, the UK had 79 fires larger than 25 hectares in 2018, and a massive 137 fires in 2019 alone, according to the according to the European Forest Fire Information SystemIn 2018, temperatures reached over 30ºC in June leading to large fires across the country. A key fire that year, at Saddleworth Moor in Greater Manchester, ignited again in 2019. The UK’s 2019 fires were considered particularly unusual because they took place early in the year, from February to May.

Large wildfires create air pollution, and can come at a cost to local economies. They may damage important habitats for UK wildlife, including national parks, ancient woodland and peatlands.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion

Climate change’s overall global effect on sea levels, plus the increase in rainfall and storm surges, and the ability of waves to wash away land is already affecting a few parts of the UK. 

The sea is so close to Fairbourne in Wales – featured in the video below – the whole village needs to be relocated.

Norfolk is another part of the UK that is facing sea level rise and erosion, and storms have led to the collapse of coastal railway lines in Devon and Cornwall.

And while it seems dramatic to think that sea levels could rise so much that whole cities and coastlines are swallowed, scientists do believe it is possible. A worst case scenario could see up to nine metres of sea level rise, with a global average temperature rise of 4ºC above pre-industrial levels.

See what that means for different parts of the UK in this projection map, which also includes the sea level rise at 2ºC of warming.

Loss of species’ habitats and threats of extinction

Even without extreme weather, a warming climate means a lot of changes to ecosystems, including habitats for some of the UK’s most iconic species. 

Warmer seas and unstable climates bring more threats of extinction. This could be through changes to food chains, because of new predators or simply inhospitable living conditions for Britain’s favourite animals and sea creatures.

Seabirds, puffins, white-beaked dolphins, cod and Atlantic salmon are all found living in and around UK waters. Warming seas will drive species away or make it harder for them to reproduce, disrupting the food chain and compounding problems like overfishing.

What impacts will climate change have on the UK in future?

As temperatures rise, so will the risk of deadly heatwaves and destructive storms and flooding. If you’ve not experienced flooding in your own area, it might seem like climate change won’t really affect you. But in many parts of the UK, flood risk is going up dramatically

Significant flooding could impact two or three million people across the country if temperatures reach 2ºC or 3ºC above pre-industrial levels, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Despite this, thousands of new homes are still being built within high risk flood zones, and thousands of flood defences are in poor condition.

All these impacts of climate change on the UK can be avoided through reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This means stopping using oil and gas and moving to renewable energy, among other solutions. The good news is that scientists now believe the impact of reducing emissions on temperatures would be immediate.