Rainy_morning

It was a really wet day. I woke to the sound of rain hammering on the glass roof of the conservatory. Looking out into the early dawn, the sky just lightening above the startling orange streetlights, I could see water streaming down the driveway out into the road. As I made my tea, I heard the plopping of large drops blown hard against the kitchen door by the strong northeast wind. Anxious that there might be leaks and that water might have got onto my workbench, I went down to the basement. The workbench was dry, but drips were falling from the extraction fan in the downstairs lavatory, rain having been blown through the vent.

Back in the kitchen, I watched the cat sniff suspiciously at the cat flap in the door and cautiously poke her nose outside, retreating immediately. When she found the courage to actually go outside, she turned back after spending just a short moment on the doorstep, coming back into the dry twitching the rain drops from her coat. It was only at her third attempt that she stayed out long enough to complete her toilet.

I usually enjoy the English weather, loving the way the depressions blow in from the Atlantic and give us alternate sunshine and showers, love the big storms that gather out in the ocean and hammer across the islands, love the ridges of high pressure that bring longer sunny spells between the rain. But these days I can’t think about weather without thinking about changing climate: each year the news about the effect of carbon emissions on climate gets worse, and with the worsening news, our responses seem more and more inadequate.

The weather this year has been particularly strange. We had a long dry winter and spring. I know, because I was outside working in our orchard for a couple of hours nearly every day. Then the rains came, lasting through April to June. Again, I know because we planted eighteen fruit trees and meadow grass between them just at the end of the dry spell, expecting to have to water them regularly. But the wet summer made this unnecessary and we now have a young orchard of beautifully well-established trees and long lush grass between them.  On the other hand this weird weather has upset the bees, the process of pollination, and the ripening of fruit. I know, because I have just picked just one basket of apples from our three established Bramley’s.

While I know these things about the weather directly, my knowledge of climate change is indirect.  I have studied the graphs of increasing carbon dioxide emissions over the centuries and seen how they correlate with increases in global temperature. I have read about the melting of Arctic ice, how this summer the margins have retreated north to a record extent, how the shrinking and thinning of the ice cap has proceeded far faster than the most pessimistic forecasts of the International Panel on Climate change. I understand that the melting of the ice cap changes the albedo of the planet, that without ice to reflect the solar heat more heat is absorbed in the dark ocean, creating a positive feedback, even as some suggest, a death spiral. I know that the melting ice may release methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There are suggestions the climate may be approaching ‘tipping points’ and could quickly make a rapid transition from one state to another.1

I have also read how the melting ice cap affects the jet stream. Our weather forecasters have told us that the wet weather this year has been caused by the jet stream staying further south that is usual during the summer. This brings the Atlantic depressions over the British Isles, instead of tracking further north. It has also brought drought to the mid West of America. Reading further, I learn that the jet stream is not only further south, it is also becoming ‘wavier,’ with steeper troughs and higher ridges. This is likely to mean not just more extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and heat waves but that these will tend to be more persistent.2

But I don’t know any of this directly, only through reports of measurements and scientific modelling conveyed through daily media and on-line. So my understanding of climate change is more abstract, more distanced, than what I know about the weather. Even the language, with terms such as ‘weather events’, is indirect. Scientists avoid attributing extreme weather to climate change but will refer to the ‘signature of recent climate change’ and relate it to ‘frequencies of natural atmospheric circulation regimes.’3 George Monbiot brought the issues more alive in his Guardian article The Day the World went Mad.4 The nearest I have got to a direct experience of the change in the Arctic is through John Vidal’s reports of the Greenpeace expedition to the Arctic in the Guardian. I met John, briefly and casually, at a conference recently, so I read his reports with a slightly more embodied sense that I know who has written them.

This disconnection between my direct experience of the weather—today’s heavy rain, the strange wet summer—and my abstract knowledge of changing climate brings about a sense of foreboding accompanied by a fundamental uncertainty. All the evidence I read suggests that the climate will change in unpredictable ways. Yet while the weather has shown some strange patterns this year, with both drought and heavy rainfall, it is difficult to make a direct connection to patterns of climate change. Is this heavy rain a sign of climate change, or is it just part of the wonderful variety of English weather? Of course it is both.

We need to find ways to make the connection between weather and the longer trends of climate change. It is a small but significant political act to bring this into everyday conversation. I try to sidestep the habitual British complaint about the immediate weather. But when someone complains about the dreadful summer I try to remember to borrow a response from David Attenborough and say, “We’ve only ourselves to blame!”5

 

1 Climate Armageddon: How the World’s Weather Could Quickly Run Amok 

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-worlds-weather-could-qui…

2 http://www.climatecentral.org/news/arctic-warming-is-altering-weather-pattern…

3 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v398/n6730/abs/398799a0.html

4 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2012/aug/29/day-world-wen…

5 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/sir-david-attenborough-this…