Climate Change: what the future holds for us

5 Aug 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Aug 2016

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to have a Climate Change Act. 

Progress has been slow not least because there are powerful forces in politics who dispute the generally held scientific view that global warming is man made.

Regardless of the source it is, however, a reality. Given how small Northern Ireland is what is more important is not arguing about the cause but making sure we can cope not just with what is happening right now but what will happen in the future.

The government-funded Committee on Climate Change has just published its latest report on Northern Ireland and the 80-page Northern Ireland Risk Assessment Report 2017 makes for sobering reading.

So what is happening to our climate, what does it mean for the future and how well prepared are we for what is to come?

First of all, it is getting warmer. The 2005 – 2014 decade was 0.7C warmer than the 1961 – 1990 average, sea levels are rising and what scientists call “extreme weather events” are becoming more frequent. Climate Northern Ireland has a brilliant graphic on its website reminding us of key events that have happened here in recent times. It is well worth a look. 

Looking forward, our winters will get both warmer and wetter and Summer temperature will rise (latest estimates suggest this could be anything between 0.8 and 4.2C by the end of the century, making temperatures of 30C plus more frequent. At the same time summer rainfall will fall whilst winters will get wetter. Snow fall will become much rarer, although as extreme weather will become more frequent that does not rule out blizzards or prolonged cold snaps as well as torrential downpours and severe winds.

Climate change has advantages and disadvantages. The report suggests mixed news for our flora and fauna and decidedly bad news for the human population.

Warmer seas have already seen fish usually found to the south of us appearing in Irish waters, John Dory, and red mullet for example, while sardines and anchovies have been found in the Irish Sea. Cold water fish like cod and whiting and monkfish are moving north and into deeper waters.

New predators are arriving offshore to attack mussel beds like the Slipper Limpit, posing a threat to aquaculture.

Fresh water fish are also under threat. Warmer waters are bad news for sea trout and salmon, and offer tempting new homes for invaders from further south like common carp and European cat fish.

Good news, however for the eels in Lough Neagh, set to thrive as the temperature in the Lough slowly rises.

The Londonderry Hare

On land scientists are predicting the slow migration northwards and eastwards of our only native mammal, the Irish Hare. Perhaps good news for future generations of nature lovers in Derry and Donegal but unlike in England, where there are plans to aid animal movements in response to climate change, nothing is in place in Northern Ireland and the long journey northwards will be perilous.

Farmers could benefit but may need to change the crops they grow. Drier summers will not be good news for our staple the potato but the longer growing season will make trees grow faster and be good for silage and grazing (grass is currently our most important crop).  Fewer winter frosts will make maize more attractive to farmers. More exotic crops will become attractive, elephant grass, for example, which is important for the biomass industry. We may even be able to grow tomatoes outside. There are anecdotal reports of people successfully harvesting outdoor tomatoes this year. Vineyards are increasingly common in England and Wales but it is unlikely we will be commercially producing wine.

There are many possible implications for agriculture. A problem noted by the survey is that, to date, precious little research has been carried out into the future shape of the industry here, a staggering omission considering its size and importance to the economy.

Floods and Storms

For humans perhaps the biggest current and future risk is flooding, with Belfast already a high risk city, built, as it is, around a network of rivers which feed into Belfast Lough and serviced by an antiquated sewage system. The Rivers Agency has an interactive flood map, showing the most vulnerable areas. It can be accessed here.

Rainfall is increasing, but so too are the incidents of “extreme weather” which include heavy and prolonged downpours.

The risks are exacerbated by the practice which has become widespread in Belfast of paving front gardens which increases the likelihood of sewer flooding. The risk of sewer flooding is projected to increase by 50% over the next few decades, according to the report.

Across Northern Ireland there are already 56,000 residential properties at risk from flooding. This number will increase significantly over the next few decades. Remarkably Northern Ireland is the only part of UK without a flood forecast/alert service.

Coastal flooding is not quite as much of a problem as in other parts of the UK. However, there is no single government agency responsible for coastal defences. This cannot give confidence to coastal communities who are under potential future threat.

Flooding also poses threats to the road and rail networks. In June 2012 an embankment failure in County Antrim led to a train with 150 passengers on board being suspended over a large hole for 12 minutes. The failure was caused by heavy rainfall the previous night.

Severe storms have caused disruption to sea and airports as well as to other parts of the infrastructure such as electricity supply and public transport. If storms, as predicted, increase in frequency and ferocity Northern Ireland, which has to be supplied for much of its food by air and sea could face difficulties. If, for example, the Port of Belfast were to be closed for a few days, there would very quickly be shortages in the shops and supermarkets. There is currently no plan to deal with such an extreme contingency.

Another concern is the impact that damper weather and storms will have on our building stock. Research will be required on the consequences of damper winters on many residential buildings. Landmark heritage buildings are considered to be at special risk.

Taking to the water

There are positives, however. The tourism industry can expect a boost, especially given that traditional resorts in the Mediterranean may become uncomfortably hot in summer months. And investment in leisure pursuits on our many waterways would be prudent.

Winter fuel bills are likely to fall and that could mean a drop in mortality rates amongst older and vulnerable people.

So whilst politicians and scientists wrangle about the causes of climate change and governments debate what can be done to slow its progress, the process is underway, and the world is warming up.

The potential impacts on Northern Ireland are being studied and the Risk Assessment Report is a fascinating document. What matters most, however, is what the NI Executive is prepared to do about it. A good starting point would be to fund more research both into areas of highest risk and measures to combat future problems, and also to examine in detail the benefits that a warmer climate can bring so we can benefit from that too. 

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