One of the most distinct memories of my childhood is of the autumn of 2000. It rained for months – 500mm between September and November, in fact. When the river in my town burst its banks one night very few people had any warning. More than 10,000 homes were flooded, destroying lives that in some cases have taken fourteen years to repair.
We were lucky; the water came within feet of our front door and no further, but this Christmas, as torrential rain fell all over the country, I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy.
Our town was safe, but many others were not. Now, as the enormous clean-up operation begins, many are linking climate change to the extreme weather experienced both here and in the US. Some in the US have even compared the recent “polar vortex” to the giant freezing storms seen in sub-par apocalyptic disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow.
One scientist who has set out to research this is Professor Myles Allen, of the University of Oxford. His previous studies of data on the floods of 2000 had to rely on public funding; along with several others in his field, he has proposed a funding increase from the government to research extreme weather, climate change, and whether humans are responsible for it.
The evidence so far is compelling; with the massive increase in our use of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution, there could well be enough CO2 in the upper atmosphere to produce the greenhouse effect. In the last few hundred years, global temperatures have increased by a few degrees; 2012 was, in fact, the hottest year on record.
This may not seem like much, but a change of just 5oC could be potentially life threatening for many organisms, including humans; destabilising ecosystems, changing ocean currents and potentially causing extreme weather. Current research uses very powerful computers to simulate weather patterns; the conclusion reached after the 2000 floods was that global warming made them two to three times more likely. Is it really all down to humans, though?
For all our CO2 emissions, green energy and heated (pun intended) climate change debates, we might just be making a fuss over a perfectly natural geological change.
We often forget that the Earth is still coming out of its last ice age, which started 2.58 million years ago. Granted, we are in one of the warmer periods, otherwise it would be a balmy -6oC in summer. However, since we don’t know how long this warmer period is supposed to last or indeed if we’ve finished warming up yet, it stands to reason that we need more research on the issue.
The investment required for such research would be approximately £10 million per year, with results likely within two years. It seems ironic that the UK government hands over billions of pounds in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and yet is reluctant to invest in a strategy such as this, which in many ways could be crucial to our survival.
Photograph: Samantha Celera