How is Climate Change Affecting the UK?
The United Kingdom seems to have gotten this message loud and clear. In 2017, the UK powered itself for a full day without coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, and in the beginning of this year, it announced plans to phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2025.
The nation’s efforts aren’t just about cutting coal, but about replacing fossil fuels with smarter and cleaner forms of energy. Scotland in particular has grown into a global leader in wind energy, with ambitious plans to produce the equivalent of 100 percent of its gross annual electricity consumption through renewables by 2020.
In 2017, renewables accounted for almost one-third of all electricity generation in the entire UK, and there’s a very good reason for the concerted effort: The UK is feeling the impacts of the climate crisis and is taking action to stop it.
“We are seeing a trend towards warmer winters and hotter summers, sea levels around our coast are rising by around 3mm a year, and there is emerging evidence of changing rainfall patterns,” the UK government said in a 2017 report to Parliament.
The list doesn’t end there. From extreme heat and powerful storms to public health, the consequences of our warming world are becoming a daily reality. Read on to see what the climate crisis looks like in the UK.
In 2003, the UK and its neighbors in mainland Europe experienced one of the most significant heat waves in recorded history. Tens of thousands died – more than 2,000 in the UK alone – during what turned out to be its hottest summer in more than 500 years across the western part of the continent.
During that time, Brogdale in Kent set an all-time record high temperature in the UK, after hitting a sweltering 38.5 degrees Celsius (101.3 degrees Fahrenheit) on August 10, 2003. (The high end of average August temperatures in this region of the UK tends to max out at around 22.8 degrees Celsius (about 73 degrees Fahrenheit).)
So when climate scientists warn that “heatwaves in the UK like that experienced in 2003 are expected to become the norm in summer by the 2040s,” it’s not taken lightly.
“We are not sufficiently prepared and we need to do more now, even for the [Paris Agreement] scenario of 2.7 C of warming. Many impacts are affecting us now, as climate change is already happening,” Lord John Krebs, chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)’s adaptation sub-committee, told the Guardian.
“What we now think of as an extremely hot summer, where people are dying of heat stress and it is extremely uncomfortable in homes, hospitals and much of transport, that is likely to be a typical summer by the middle of the century and would be a cool summer in the 2080s.”
The committee chairman added that these heat-related risks are compounded because most hospitals, elder care facilities, and other care homes were not designed to deal with extreme heat – and many are located in flood-prone areas.
The elderly and very young, as well as people with chronic illnesses, lower-income communities, and people who work outdoors, are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat-related health effects, including an elevated risk of death from conditions like heart attack, heat stroke, organ failure, and more.
Worse, residents of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and other major metro areas in the UK can expect even more dangerously hot conditions than folks in surrounding rural areas. All thanks to the urban heat island effect, which pushes temperatures higher in cities as large buildings and asphalt streets absorb, store, and radiate heat.
Indeed, without aggressive global climate action, experts fear heat waves could reach temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius (a searing 118 degrees Fahrenheit) in London by late this century.
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FLOODING AND DROUGHT
It all goes back to two facts about the global water cycle. First, the cycle is highly interconnected, so every step affects every step after it. Which means a change in one part of the cycle has consequences on all the others.
Second, every step in this cycle is highly dependent on temperature. So as global temperatures have steadily increased at their fastest rates in millions of years, it’s directly affected things like water vapor concentrations, clouds, precipitation patterns, and stream flow patterns. All of which play a role in when, where, and how much precipitation falls.
With temperatures rising in the UK, many areas are seeing rainfall become either increasingly abundant or in desperately short supply, relative to longtime averages. To put it another way, they’re getting way too much rain – or not enough at all.
It’s unsurprising then, that the Met Office (the UK's national weather service) reports that nine of nation’s 17 record-breaking rainfall months/seasons since 1910 have occurred since just 2000.
The trend of more heat and more rain has real consequences. In a climate scenario where global temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius, the number of UK households at significant risk of flooding more than doubles to 1.9 million by 2050.
At the other end of the spectrum, times of the year that are already typically dry could become even drier, straining water resources.
“Climate change is projected to reduce the amount of water in the environment that can be sustainably withdrawn whilst increasing the demand for irrigation during the driest months. At the same time the growing population will create additional demands on already stretched resources in some parts of the country,” the CCC’s UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 states.
“Even low population growth and modest climate change scenarios suggest severe water supply deficits, and with high population growth and more severe climate change these deficits deepen and by the 2050s extend across the UK.”
Warming temperatures will also likely bring once far-off diseases to the UK as insects travel farther and farther outside their native habitats. (Scientists speak of disease-carrying insects as “vectors.”)
“Risks from new and emerging pests and diseases, and invasive non-native species, are potentially very high for people, animals and the natural environment,” according to the 2017 CCC report.
“The warmer conditions expected with climate change will allow some pests, disease-carrying insects and other animals, and invasive non-native species, to extend their range.”
Of notable concern for residents of the UK is the increased risk of the Asian tiger mosquito, which can carry the Chikungunya virus, dengue fever, and Zika virus.
Warmer conditions do more than extend the range of vectors like mosquitoes, ticks, and other bugs. As winters become milder, the survival rate of many of these insects increases. The result is that generations reproduce and grow faster than before, while also having prolonged annual activity periods (i.e., more and more vectors transmitting illnesses to more and more people over longer and longer periods of time.)
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WHAT’S NEXT – FOR THE UK AND BEYOND?
Climate change touches every aspect of our lives – in the United Kingdom and all over the world. With this crisis transforming our planet more and more every day, we've got to fight like our world depends on it.
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