Stormy summer set to continue for rain-soaked UK
Forecasters have issued flood warnings as more bands of rain approach British shores. Meanwhile, America has suffered an extreme heat wave. Is global warming to blame?
Will summer ever come? That is the question being asked up and down the UK as the country is soaked by a seemingly endless succession of torrential downpours. Drenched commuters mutter into their anoraks: ‘We’re used to the odd shower, but this is ridiculous!’
But the news from the Met Office – the national weather service of the UK – remains relentlessly bleak. The forecast going into the weekend? More rain.
And the country is not just having a bad week. The months from April to June, taken together, were the wettest seen in Britain since records began more than a hundred years ago. Looking forward into July and August, long-range forecasters say the unsettled conditions are likely to continue.
While the UK is worrying about rain, things on the other side of the Atlantic have been very different. Following a huge storm at the end of June, much of the USA was gripped by an extraordinary heat wave that saw temperatures reach their highest levels in decades. Hot winds fanned wildfires in Colorado that destroyed thousands of homes.
At the same time, an even worse extreme weather event was striking the city of Krymsk in southern Russia. Torrential rain caused flash floods that destroyed houses and killed at least 172 people.
Why is the weather so strange this year? In the case of the UK, scientists say the wet summer has been caused by changes to the jet stream, a fast moving current of air rushing in from the Atlantic.
Normally, the jet stream flows just off the northwestern coast of Scotland – but at the moment it appears to have been pushed south of its usual course and is blowing clouds of Atlantic damp directly over England.
What everyone suspects, of course, is that it must be something to do with global warming. Theories are already going round explaining how the melting of Arctic sea ice could disrupt the natural circulation of the atmosphere – and a recent report from scientists in the US and the UK has proved that climate change is making certain extreme weather events more likely.
But although speculation is rife, weather experts refuse to blame the strange summer on global warming, for now at least. They may have their suspicions, but only after years of research will they be able to say for sure.
Green campaigners often wish scientists were less cautious. They want to persuade the public to take action on climate change. It would be much easier to do that if CO2 emissions could be made to take the blame for miserable weather.
Perhaps so, climatologists reply, but the job of science is to find out the facts, and to be honest and open about uncertainty. That principle is sacred, even with the future of the planet on the line.
- Do you think Britain’s wet summer has been caused by climate change?
- Should scientists ever conceal the truth in the service of the greater good?
- Write a song or poem on the theme of rainy summer.
- In groups, act out an imagined conversation between activists who want scientists to give out more frightening quotes and scientists who insist on getting all the facts exactly right.
Some People Say...
“Climate science is a load of hot air.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I thought global warming would, er... make Britain warmer?!
- A natural enough assumption, but in fact it is much more complicated than that. Although the overall temperature of the planet is expected to rise, the warming will not be evenly spread. If anything, Britain is likely to get wetter summers and drier winters.
- Could be worse I suppose...
- It will be worse than it sounds. Apart from rising sea-levels and increased flooding, there will also be social, political and economic consequences as climate change creates havoc around the world. Desertification in Africa, for example, could send waves of refugees north into Europe. Changing weather will cause chaos for farmers, disrupting the world’s food supplies. Global warming will not give anyone an easy ride.
- Long-range forecasters
- The Met Office issues forecasts up to three months in advance, but warns that forecasting weather more than a few days in the future is a very inexact science.
- Natural circulation of the atmosphere
- The circulation of currents in the atmosphere is driven almost entirely by the difference in temperature between the air at the equator and the air at the Earth’s poles. Hot air rises and colder, denser air is sucked in to fill the gap left behind.
- Certain extreme weather events
- Researchers looked at a selection of recent weather events to try to establish whether they were attributable to man-made climate change. In some cases, they found no connection, but global warming was blamed for a drought in Texas, a Western European heat wave and Britain’s unusually dry November last year. Analysing the deep causes of weather events so fast is unprecedented in climate science.
- CO2 emissions
- Man-made (or ‘anthropogenic’) global warming is caused by the build up of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. CO2 (carbon dioxide) is the main, but not the only, greenhouse gas.