Europe faces wildfires and drought after heatwave
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Mark Maslin, an author and professor of earth system science at UCL, told Express.co.uk that the UK was moving towards a Mediterranean climate, with milder winters and arid summers. He stressed the need to support the nation’s agricultural sector through the changing climate as “absolutely essential”.
This summer’s scorching heatwave in July lasted three days and saw temperatures climb to a record 40.3 degrees, leaving in its wake a stretch of warm weather that led to a further, mini heatwave in August.
Last week, the Environment Agency declared a drought across eight of England’s fourteen regions due to below typical levels of rainfall. Several water companies have already introduced temporary hosepipe bans for the summer in a bid to conserve water.
Despite the previous record being set in 2018 – which saw a high of 32 degrees – these maximum temperatures have been far above the usual levels for recent years.
Professor Maslin explained: “For July, the average maximum temperature for about the last ten years has been 22-24 degrees – that’s the hottest it gets. So 40 degrees is sixteen degrees warmer than it should have been.”
He added: “It completely took most climatologists by surprise, it is extreme and these sort of heatwaves are probably going to become more common.”
Though a heatwave may bring headline-grabbing temperatures, even summers without sweltering spells are expected to be hotter on average, with a higher frequency of summers seeing mercury rise to levels usually found in southern Europe.
Professor Maslin said that 2018 was now used as a benchmark for a hot British summer, stating: “If we warm the temperature of the Earth by 1.5 degrees – we’re already at about 1.1 [to] 1.2 – then one in four summers will be as hot as that , with heatwaves.
“If we then hit two degrees, then every other summer will be as hot as 2018 with heatwaves on that new baseline.
“If we hit 3 degrees, nine out of 10 summers will be that hot – the summers will always be as hot as 2018. And of course your heatwaves will be on that baseline. So your 38’s and 40’s and above will become much more common.”
According to NASA, if global temperatures warm by an average of 1.5 degrees, “extreme” heatwaves will become “widespread”. Professor Maslin stressed that the higher the average temperature for the summer, the hotter any heatwave would be.
When that boundary will be crossed, though, is still a matter for debate – and can be pushed back or averted altogether if policymakers can put in place the necessary barriers. NASA says an average 1.5 degree rise has already been recorded in parts of the globe, but not across the board.
According to a study by Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist in the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, that milestone could be reached as early as 2026 if emissions levels remain on their current path.
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As such, Britain is likely to see at least one more 32-degree summer this decade, with a potentially higher frequency next decade.
Professor Maslin commented: “From the models I can’t tell you if next summer will be dryer or wetter than this one, but I can tell you over the next ten years, the summers will get hotter and they will get dryer.
“So these sorts of droughts will become commonplace as they are in many parts of Europe, and we have to learn how to deal with them and build the infrastructure we need.”
One key part of that, he said was to have “clear policy making sure the water companies put aside enough water for agriculture.
“It’s absolutely essential we have a functioning agriculture sector. Farmers in many ways are the custodians of our land. Yes, they produce food, but they also maintain the biodiversity, they maintain forests and prevent flash flooding, they do all these other things that are incredibly important for our environment.”
He added: “The water companies need to be told very clearly that they have a statutory requirement to provide our farmers with enough water.”
In addition to this, the UK’s agricultural sector will need to adapt to the changing weather patterns. The south of England now sees a good climate for growing grapes – “English wine is having a Renaissance” – and so “there has to be this understanding of where is it sensible to grow this particular crop or look after this particular livestock”, Professor Maslin said.
Farmers have already warned of the impact this year’s drought will have on crops and livestock, and there are fears of food shortages this autumn as inflation is expected to reach its zenith.
Professor Maslin warned: “If you start losing farmers and land is not used, of course we’re going to have to import more food, which then increases the price – again, causing another crisis through the cost of living for this winter.”
When asked to comment, a Defra spokesperson said: “We have taken action to build resilience in the water sector with £469million water company investment in additional resources like new reservoirs, and we continue to crack down on leakage with tough targets. Each region has a pre-agreed drought plan which is closely scrutinised, and several companies have taken precautionary action to safeguard supplies should the dry weather continue into the autumn.
“We continue to work closely with water companies and the Environment Agency to protect public supplies, the environment and critical sectors that depend on water, including farmers.”
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