Eamon Ryan: Storm Henry is clearly no friend of St Bridget
The scale of what is happening to the weather is hard to comprehend
Waves crash over the lighthouse at Porthcawl, Wales, February 1, 2016. Gale force winds are affecting parts of Wales. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden
It’s St Bridget’s day, when we traditionally celebrate the arrival of Spring but instead we are battening down the hatches as Storm Henry sweeps in. Wind speeds in Donegal are gusting to 130 kph and thirty six foot waves are hitting our coast. The ESB have only just reconnected 8,000 households who lost power from Storm Gertrude last week. If this keeps up we are going to run out of letters in the alphabet to name these extreme weather events.
The scale of what is happening is hard to comprehend. An unusual “cold pool” has formed in the north Atlantic off Greenland where sea temperatures are 3 to 4c lower than they should be. This caused our “summer” to be cold and cloudy. There are indications that this is slowing the Gulf Stream, which provides us with our temperate climate.
Changes are also happening to the atmospheric air currents over the North Atlantic. Scientists are describing a shift in the jet stream which circles the Northern hemisphere. The normal gentle curve of the jet stream is becoming steeper and slower, causing either hot, cold weather or stormy weather to stick for longer periods than usual. The increasing contrast between the cold air to the north and the ever warmer air to the south is also causing the jet stream to operate at a more persistently strong level. This leads to delivery of more frequent and more intense storms in this part of the world.
This year we happen to be on the up trough of that stream, which has brought wetter and warmer weather as well as the storms. The UK has recorded the warmest December on record with the average temperature topping out at 8c in contrast with a normal average of 4c. It’s worth noting that reliable temperature records in central England go back to 1659. Met Éireann’s statistics, show that it was the warmest December on record in most areas and the wettest in many locations. Indeed the combined November and December rainfall totals were also the highest on record in the south and west of the country.
Storm Frank caused great damage in Ireland and elsewhere but one extraordinary effect of this powerful depression was that it managed to push warm air all the way to the North Pole, and on December 30th 2015 the temperature there rose above freezing point. Two weeks later we had an another unprecedented event as Hurricane Alex took a freakish path from the Azores right up to Greenland. The medium term forecasting models can no longer predict some of the things that are happening.
We have seen one of the strongest El Niño warming’s in the Pacific ever. This has influenced the weather across the world with the majority of the states in the USA recording their wettest and warmest Decembers on record. However, the best scientific research has shown that the El Nino effect has only been responsible for a small fraction of what is going on.
Climate change is the main driver, pushing bigger storms in the North Atlantic at the same time that unprecedented flooding has affecting the Mississippi basin and extensive areas of South America. Record heat and drought are now been felt in Australia. Southern China, Taiwan and Vietnam have just had exceptional snowfalls and freezing temperatures.
As families and businesses along the Shannon still grapple with the continuing impact of flooding, we need to develop policies and systems to cope with this ever escalating climate challenge. We will need to become more resilient. Our preparation and planning have to begin now and become more long-term in its thinking.
If Bridget was alive today, she would be raising the alarm.
Eamon Ryan is leader of the Green Party