Belfast Telegraph

What's happening to our climate?

Northern Ireland this year has seen bees in January, puffins starving in Rathlin and the early appearance of new species of butterfly. Rural Affairs reporter Linda McKee outlines how and why we are all feeling the effects of climate change

It's not a fad any more.

A couple of years ago, global warming was still regarded as the latest media scare and we in Northern Ireland thought it was just a matter of switching to low-energy light bulbs.

Now it's swept into the mainstream, everyone's talking about low carbon lifestyles and the notion of cycling your way into work looks a little more doable.

But climate change hasn't just appeared out of nowhere - it just seems that way.

The theory that industrial emissions could spark temperature rise in the atmosphere was put forward early in the 20th century and the last few decades have yielded a huge array of data supporting it.

But it was only recently that global warming filtered through to producing effects visible to the man in the street, and only now has it sparked widespread concern.

Geoff Nuttall, head of the World Wildlife Fund in Northern Ireland, said: "What's clearly being shown is that the warmest years on record have all been in recent decades. 2005 was the warmest to date and previously it was 1998, followed by 2002, 2003 and 2004.

" There is a building picture showing just how much recent warming has been accelerating."

Polar research has also revealed the thickness of summer ice in the Arctic has thinned by 40% in the last three decades.

The US Geological Survey recently predicted that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by 2050.

"There was a report recently suggesting that the melt may even be more rapid than that," Mr Nuttall said.

"At current rates of melt, predictions range from saying Arctic would be free of ice in summer by the end of the century to others saying that could be much sooner - it could be by 2040."

Scientists are usually wary of making hard forecasts on anything but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - the world's leading climate scientists - is stating its warnings increasingly strongly.

" The last IPCC report was categoric in saying that the evidence is overwhelming, that human activity is causing climate change," Mr Nuttall said.

"The fact is that in the last 10-15 years you are getting the records continuously broken of the highest global average temperature. Other incidents which tend to reinforce it are several heatwaves in Europe.

"If temperatures rise, certain types of things will happen more - drought, floods, increased incidence of strong storms.

"When you look at the record of recent flooding in the UK, those sorts of patterns are predicted to become more frequent."

The National Trust warned recently that parts of the Giant's Causeway could sink beneath the waves later this century and sea level rise could devastate the remarkable dunes at Murlough near Dundrum.

Indeed, Northern Ireland is already experiencing the first wave of effects. The Scotland and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research's report last year concluded that our climate is already changing.

"The overall temperature is rising, the number of hot days is increasing, the weather's getting wetter - and that is predicted to be a increasing trend," Mr Nuttall said. "We are expecting an increased frequency of severe storms, storm surges and heavy downpours. These are things which are already being recorded and which are predicted to increase.

"Other things that are being noticed are impacts on wildlife - for instance, declines in sea bird populations off Rathlin and off the Scottish coasts have been attributed to food sources not being available."

Not only are wildlife and agriculture at risk, but there have been recent warnings that the knock-on effects will include surges in global conflict. Climate change will hit everyone in the world.

"Every time there is significant flooding, it costs a lot of money in insurance, the cost to the public purse. It will directly impact us economically," Mr Nuttall said.

"Globally, if the temperature increases, this will lead to global instability as large populations of people are being displaced around the world. Anything that happens in a globalised world fairly quickly affects everybody. No-one is insulated against the problem."

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