Thursday, 15 September 2011

Climate Change comes to Somerset? (Oh no, not the Cider!)

Welcome to the first post of the year! A summary of recent climate change activity, and the potential dangers to a somerset tradition.

This year has seen a flurry of discussion about how climate change, and the Rio +20 summit (Rio Earth Summit 20 years on, Kyoto runs out next year, leaving a gaping void in binding climate agreements), and the general consensus seems to be that the way to get people to listen on the climate change front, is to tell them that it will hit them where it hurts. Their wallets.

Much research has been done since the Stern Report on the impacts of climate change, and governments all around the world are starting to see some changes. We have had two extreme winters, costing many millions in repairs to roads and infrastructure, Hurricane Irene reached New York, unusual for Atlantic Hurricanes, and Africa is gripped with one of its worst droughts on record. This month has seen the start of a geo-engineering trial, the SPICE Project (Stratospheric Particle Injection Climate Engineering), which is in the early stages of testing, and over the next few months the kit will go through field trials with a kilometre long hose and Helium balloon spraying water at altitude, with an aim to identify three key issues surrounding the highly debated idea of geo-engineering (reproduced from:

Evaluating candidate particles: Researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge and the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory are considering what would be an ‘ideal’ particle to inject into the stratosphere.  The researchers will aim to identify a particle with excellent solar radiation scattering properties, and consider what potential impacts might be on climate, weather, ecosystems and human health.
Delivery systems:Engineers from the University of Cambridge and Marshall Aerospace will test the feasibility and design of using a tethered-balloon to inject particles into the stratosphere. They will be using the data obtained from the test-bed project in computer models to examine how a full-scale system might work at an altitude of 20km.
Climate and environmental modelling: Researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Bristol are working with the Met Office Hadley Centre to consider what can be learned from past volcanic eruptions.  They are also modelling the potential impact on ozone layer concentrations, regional precipitation changes and atmospheric chemistry.
SPICE is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) who are providing laboratory facilities and expertise for the project.

The full article is well worth a read, and will be useful for our final module this year.

For those of you still debating the idea of manipulating the climate system, against taking radical political and economic action to reduce our carbon emissions, here is an excellent blog post from todays Guardian, by John Shepherd, part of the comprehensive section on all geo-engineering issues that can be found here. 

Some countries are already considering preventative measures, Kiribati was in the news this week for their contemplation of a radical scheme involving the creation of artificial islands , that their vulnerable population could relocate to. The scheme proposed by Vincent Callebaut, the Lillypad  scheme, images below, would see vast floating islands holding hundreds of people each and capable of handling the coming challenges of global climate change.

Extreme though this sounds, the idea is feasible and as Kiribati is already facing a $900 million bill for protecting its infrastructure, against a $2 Billion bill for constructing an oil-rig like structure to house several hundred people, the economics are becoming more justified with every centimetre rise in sea level. Artificial islands are in fact, nothing new, several have been built over our history, some more famous than others, such as the controversial Palm Islands and the World in Dubai:

On a smaller scale, the floating villages of Lake Titicaca are older and still in use to house the Uros people, there are believed to be around 40 of these islands anchored in the lake, very few accept visitors, and the Islands anchor them using long poles to reach the lake bed. Other island states have started to construct "Rubbish Islands" such as Thilafushi in the Maldives, which has been controversial, but perhaps the only way to handle the 3.5kg of waste produced each day by tourists who now number over 100 000 per week to the islands. Semaku is the island cretaed from nothing but open water to hold Singapores rubbish, which is incinerated or rcycled, then compressed into vast ocean based chamber, and now is a recognised nature reserve and mangrove swamp, and a tourist attraction for the city state.

So, this year should prove to be interesting, you would be well advised as aspiring geographers to keep abreast of the developments at Rio +20 the official website is here, and here is the link to the Guardians coverage of the event which will develop over time, so keep this link handy!

So, you ask, how does any of this affect us in Somerset? If you have been saying to yourself, or heard many others say, that this winter was so cold, how can global warming possibly be happening? Or, even better, as someone recently said to me "Yes thats all very interesting, but that sort of thing doesn't happen here", a little story about the weird weather this year, and how it could potentially affect our most precious of Somerset exports, cider.

You will probably remember, that spring this year was rather lovely, early and very hot, we had a fantastic easter break, short though it was, and all enjoyed a sunny Royal Wedding (See my earlier post on Royal Wedding Geography). Summer has been ok, not too hot but you may have noticed we have an abundance or soft fruit, and apples. No bad thing, for a county that still exports a lot of cider, but the trees are a little confused. Having blossomed and fruited early, they are not putting out their winter buds, normally not seen until the leaves drop later in autumn. The problem here, is that should we have a tradition "Indian Summer" late in September or October, as has happened for the last two years, the trees could start to put out new leaves again. When the winter finally comes, and judging by the last two years, it will be cold, the trees may suffer some fairly serious damage. Combined with the fact that a common sight at the moment, are apple trees breaking under the weight of their bounty this year, the increased tree damage, and potentially confused buds, could leave us in an awful position next year, as in, we may have a cider shortage.

Dont panic yet! If the winter stays cold, we could be ok, the trees will be fine, and come spring, we might have another great year for our apples, but we could be missing some of our small mammals and birds that depend on autumn fruit like Hawthorn and Elderberries, both of which are already fruited and going over, or Rosehips, which traditionally last till november. Even the Holly is coated in berries already, so when it gets cold, and food gets scarce, there will not necessarily be enough to fatten up hibernating or migrating species before the long winter.

What can we do about it? Well, firstly, do your apple trees a favour, and pick some fruit off the heavily laden branches to prevent too much damage, secondly, we may all need to provide a bit of grub for the birds later on in the year, last, but not least, enjoy this years apple crop, next years may not be any where near as good.

Lets hope that this doesn't happen, but the signs of coming climate change are all around us, having never had a day off for snow when I was at school or college, over the last three years I've had the better part of two weeks snowed out of work, remember, climate change does not mean we are just going to get hotter, we will suffer more extremes of temperature and shorter, more extreme seasons. Sound familiar?

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