There’s no doubt that Britain’s environment has altered due to climate change. But how has global warming changed the landscape in the last 10 years? Stylist reports.
We know that we’re running out of time to save the planet, and that huge changes to human behaviour are desperately needed. Often, though, the examples cited seem far away from us: ice caps melting in the Arctic; forest fires in California; Australian droughts. But while we should care deeply about the terrifying effects of climate change on other parts of the world, we’re not immune from them in the UK either, with our physical landscape having changed dramatically.
While climate change and its effects are measured by tracking changes over hundreds and thousands of years, the past decade has seen record-breaking weather events and a fast pace of change. Exactly how is the landscape likely to have altered in the past 10 years?
“Just about every aspect of Britain’s environment has altered due to human-caused climate change, from our coasts to our mountains,” says Mary Gagen, Professor of Geography at Swansea University, whose research focuses on climate change. “It’s easy to see why when we consider how our climate has changed.”
That change has been particularly obvious in the very recent past. Globally, explains Professor Gagen, 2015-2019 has been the warmest five year period on record. And that’s had an effect on the UK’s climate specifically, which has become warmer and wetter with six of the 10 wettest years since records began occurring since 1999, and sea levels rising in 2018 to their highest since 1901. This is a particular concern for Britain, an island nation with an estimated 3,000km of coastline.
The effect of this change has been an increase in all kinds of weather extremes, accelerating in the past decade – remember the Beast from the East or this summer’s record-breaking heatwaves?
“I love the sun just like many British people, so when we hear [about higher temperatures] it’s sometimes easy to think ‘that sounds kind of nice actually’,” says Professor Gagen, who explains that this year’s heatwaves happened when the UK was on average about 1 degree warmer than 100 years ago. By the end of the century, it’s predicted to be 4 degrees.
“If you were caring for a baby or an elderly person, it got really hard to keep them well in the heat, and that will get worse.”
It’s not just our weather which has changed over the past 10 years. Increased flooding and high temperatures have a direct impact on our physical landscape and, in turn, the wildlife which lives in it.
In their assessment of the UK-specific effects of climate change, the Met Office highlight the increase of localised and coastal flooding and erosion, as well as a greater number of wildfires. They point out how all this results in changes to the seasons themselves, with certain plants and flowers blooming earlier, as well as birds migrating and animals going into hibernation sooner than previous years.
“Trees are producing their spring leaves earlier,” agrees Professor Gagen. “In the 50s our oak trees used to produce their new leaves around the end of April – now they produce them around the end of March.” If you’ve ever found yourself thinking that spring seems to come around earlier every year, you’re right.
Professor Gagen also emphasises this connection between weather, landscape and wildlife. “As sea levels rise, our coastal areas become flooded and if you’re a plant or animal that lives in coastal habitats, like saltmarshes, that’s a problem,” she explains. “Grasslands and moorlands are also drying up in warm summers and animals that are adapted to cooler climates – like bumblebees – don’t tolerate heat well.”
This, she points out, isn’t just an issue of animal welfare; species like bumblebees are critical pollinators, keeping our ecosystems balanced and pollinating the crops we eat. In other words, they’re vital for our survival – but four out of our seven most common species in the UK have declined in numbers within the last decade.
If all this sounds quite scary, that’s because, well, it is. But, says Professor Gagen, how intense the changes are in the future is still in our control.
“It can be overwhelming to think ‘what can I do? I won’t make a difference’,” she says, “but I think the answer is not to try and change every single thing at once, but to think about where you can make small changes.” Although, she says, the biggest changes need to come from governments and businesses.
And while the impact on the UK, even within just one decade, is clear to see, Professor Gagen is keen to point out the unequal way in which climate change affects the planet.
“We need to think about what 4 degrees of warming would look like for people living in hot and poor nations,” she points out.
“That’s the really awful thing about climate change. The richer, northern countries caused it, but the global south will suffer far worse consequences. It’s time for all of us to decide who we are: whether we think it’s fair for people in the global south to suffer because of the industrial revolution that made the west so rich, or not.”
Images: Unsplash, Getty