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Friday, 22 January 2016

What are the impacts of climate change near you?

The British Isles are perched at the western edge of the Eurasian land mass and experience a temperate climate, dominated by the influence of the Atlantic Ocean. British people are notorious for talking about their weather, which is extremely changeable, but rarely think about climate. This paper will however argue that there is clear evidence that the climate of the British Isles is changing and that the impact of this change can be seen now in the behaviour of the natural world. It will be suggested that there is evidence of a northward 'drift' in species range and that this tendency is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as the world warms.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a highly reputable wildlife organisation, in a report published in November 2015 (1) highlighted the following points:
  • Wildlife will only be able to follow suitable climate if there is enough appropriate habitat available. One third of Europe's bumblebee species could lose 80 per cent of their current range by 2100.
  • In the North Sea, climate change is impacting on sea conditions, with knock-on changes in plankton communities. Climate change is a factor in the 70 per cent decline in kittiwake populations in the UK.
  • As the climate changes, wildlife is having to move to follow suitable conditions northwards. As a result of these range changes, species are colonising new areas.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which gives independent evidence-based advice to the UK Government, reported (2) that:
  • The increase in average temperatures experienced in the UK over the last few decades has already had a noticeable impact on wildlife.
  • New species are arriving in southern Britain from mainland Europe and many groups of native species are steadily shifting their distributions northwards to remain within their viable ‘climate space’
  • Some species may experience a shrinking in the area of suitable climate space. This is particularly the case for mosses, which mostly favour wet and cold conditions.
  • Wildlife will only be able to benefit from expansions in climate space if there is enough habitat in the right area and in good ecological condition to colonise.
These may seem to be inconsequential effects when set against global issues like rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events, but they are not because they reflect what is almost certainly happening worldwide to wildlife populations. The main point is that climate change impacts directly on wildlife, often in unpredictable ways.

The stock of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere has now reached 400 ppm (3) and the flow of emissions continues to exceed storage, so CO2 will increase in the medium term, whatever action occurs on emissions, and global warming will continue. Looking at the evidence for Britain, the Department of Energy and Climate Change reported (4) in 2013 that the spring of 2011 was the warmest such season on the long standing Central England Temperature (CET) record and the year was the second warmest. During the 20th century, the annual mean central England temperature increased by about 1.0 °C. The last decade was exceptionally warm in central England, on average about 0.7 °C warmer than the 1961-1990 average. The temperature increase in Britain was actually slightly above the global increase for the same period.

The natural world is a system of incredible complexity, even in a group of small islands such as Britain. Feedback in the system operates at multiple levels which makes prediction of consequences very difficult if not impossible. We can say for sure that Britain will get warmer but what the direct effects on wildlife, and the indirect effects on humans, will be, we cannot say.

In conclusion this paper has shown clear evidence that temperatures in Britain are rising as CO2 increases globally, and that this is having an impact on wildlife. The impact will continue, and the consequences may get greater, for the foreseeable future. Adaptation is taking place but the rate of change may be too fast for some species. The consequences of change are unpredictable because of the immense complexity of the natural ecosystem. Changes seen here in Britain are a microcosm of changes which people can expect to impact on them worldwide.


(1) “Climate Change: a hot topic for the UK's wildlife and public”. November 2015 on the website of the RSPB at http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/details.aspx?id=409213

(2) “Preparing for the Impacts of Climate Change on the UK's Natural Environment” by David Thompson, Committee on Climate Change, December 2015. On the CCC website at https://www.theccc.org.uk/2015/12/02/preparing-for-the-impacts-of-climate-change-on-our-natural-environment/

(3) “ A Global Milestone: CO2 passes 400ppm” by Brian Kahn at Climate Central on the Climate Central website at http://www.climatecentral.org/news/co2-400-ppm-global-record-18965

(4) “Central England and Global Surface Temperature” A report of the department of Energy and Climate Change, August 2013 on Government website at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/229814/surface_temperature_summary_report.pdf

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