Weather and the environment took centre stage at a conference last month. Gilly Johnson reports.
EACH season is yielding a fresh crop of weather statistics – adding to the evidence that global warming is here.
1997 is on course to be the warmest year on record. And the last two and a half years have been the driest since records began. Faced with such facts, more scientists are becoming convinced that the UK climate is changing – and that agriculture must adapt.
Dr Nick Reynard is one of the converted, though he is careful to point out that our extraordinary weather just might be a blip in long term natural variation. As one of the team in the Global Atmosphere Division at the newly titled Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (formerly the DoE), Dr Reynards task is to investigate changing trends in UK weather.
"Although we may think its a lack of rain that has affected agriculture in the past 10 years, in fact its the increasing variability of weather that has given the most serious problems – droughts and then floods," he told a climate change conference in Harrogate last month, organised by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group. "Were on a hydrological roller coaster."
Statistics confirm that weather records are now being routinely broken as the UK climate becomes more changeable and extreme. The period 1988 to 1992 was the driest four-year spell ever recorded – but December 1989 was the wettest.
Despite occasional flooding, long term drought is raising the most worries. "River flows are exceptionally low, aquifers are at record low levels and groundwater supplies need about 10 weeks of average rainfall before water reserves can even start to build up again," said Dr Reynard.
But initial hopes that rainfall this autumn could restore supplies were dashed by the dry October.
Growers should be prepared for warmer temperatures and drier summers. "On balance, more rain is falling in winter than in summer, which suggests we are shifting to a more Mediterranean style climate."
Government predictions are for a rise in the average temperature of 1.6íC by 2050. "The figures seem small, but dont be deceived. We should remember that our warmest year this century was just 1íC hotter than the average," said Dr Reynard.
Night and winter temperatures will rise most. The south east of the UK should bear the brunt of the change. Rainfall patterns are harder to predict, he admitted. "There could be 10% more rain, but it is likely to fall in winter. Summer rainfall could drop by about 8%." Again, most of the impact will be felt in the south east.
MAFF is spending £990,000 on climate change research this year. Answers are being sought as to what the effect on the industry might be. The hot summer of 1995 cost about £180m, according to an ADAS survey – though some of this was borne by consumers, rather than producers.
"We are beginning to have a handle on how the farming industry might best adapt to climate change. Growers would be wise to start thinking about it now," warned Dr Diane Wilkins of MAFF.