Climate change: how it affects Britain

Flooding

Flooding in the UK is on the increase due to climate change

Climate change has serious and long-lasting implications for us all. Listed below are some specific impacts of climate change that are affecting Britain right now, and links to more information about them.

Deaths of elderly and vulnerable people
The 2003 heat wave that baked Europe caused drought, forest fires, destroyed agriculture, and ultimately killed tens of thousands of people. In Britain alone 2,070 people died. They were predominantly from vulnerable sections of society, notably the elderly, babies, those on medication and the mentally ill. This is because people who are more severely affected by heat and dehydration are less able to look after themselves conditions of extreme heat and humidity. These deaths clearly raised Britain’s normal summer time death rate. Studies have attributed this rise directly to the heat wave, which is itself almost universally identified, not only as having been caused by climate change, but also as being the shape of things to come. In anticipation of this becoming an annual occurence the UK Met Office has now instituted a heat wave warning system for those people at risk. See:

Starving North Sea Birds
Perhaps one of the saddest of the impacts recently recorded and also a pointed irony in the face of accusations that wind power will harm birds – it is now becoming clear that there is massive destruction already happening in the North Sea bird populations. The warming water has decimated sand eel populations (a cold-water fish species that is the major food of these birds) and is ridding the seas of plankton. Now many species of bird are simply starving and hundreds of dead birds have been washing up on North Sea beaches from Norfolk to Aberdeen.

In 2004 the RSPB and others reported that six key North Sea species in Shetland and Orkney had almost completely failed to breed. In the case of Arctic Skua’s there were no surviving young in the 2004 breeding season. The starving adult birds ate those that did hatch. Even Guillemots – a species able to fish over long ranges were experiencing breeding failure at a level ‘unprecedented in Europe’ according to the RSPB. Of 172,000 breeding pairs in Shetland almost no young at all have been produced.

The RSPB has said that, ‘the whole food web is being unravelled by climate change and this could fundamentally be the biggest change in the North Sea since it was created 10,000 years ago.’ One day later the story broke that the problem was also hitting the English coast and the largest UK colony of seabird at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. See:

Destroyed beaches
Another irony given the opposition in some quarters to offshore wind farms that anti-windies claim will spoil the ‘visual amenity’ of their beaches. Reports from recent English Nature studies suggest that Britain’s sandy beaches may all be washed away within the next hundred years. A combination of flooding, extreme weather and rising sea levels is already effecting some of the most popular beaches in the country and will destroy many of them within our lifetimes. See:

Flooding
Increased flooding is a heightened threat across the whole of the UK and is probably the most visible and commonly identified impact from climate change. The Environment Agency publishes maps of flood threatened areas for the whole country and the combination of torrential rains and rising sea levels means that most places could be affected. Most recently the massive flooding across Britain in 2000 brought home to many that this was a problem that will only worsen. Estimates of the cost of flooding to the UK are climbing recently – the insurance industry announced that costs had doubled in the UK since the 1950’s and may triple in the future. It is estimated that 4 million people in the UK face the threat of flooding caused by global warming.

Damaged heritage
A combination of factors is threatening monuments and heritage sites in the UK. In particular more extreme weather caused by climate change, including torrential rain and flooding is putting buildings at risk. The changing climate is also promoting bacterial and fungal growth on stone that hastens erosion. The effects are already being seen in London, but could harm buildings throughout the UK and Europe. (The link is to eprinted copy of a story from the Independent that is no longer freely available from The Independent Digital site). See: