Stormy outlook: average summer for this generation, a bad summer for the next

‘Temperatures in Ireland are running more than 0.5 degrees higher for the three summer months than the average for 1961-1990’

Caught in a torrential downpour on Parkgate Street in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton/Collins Photo Agency

Caught in a torrential downpour on Parkgate Street in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton/Collins Photo Agency

 

As wind and rain batter Ireland again this weekend, summer 2016 will probably not be remembered by most as anything other than a “run-of-the-mill” Irish summer.

The promise of early June when temperatures exceeded 25 degrees was not realised, with only short bursts of heat in July and mid-August to interrupt a steady flow of Atlantic weather systems. These were borne by a jet stream which stayed stubbornly to the south of Ireland for much of the summer.

Thus, 2016 continued a sequence of mainly mediocre or downright disappointing summers stretching back over the past decade, with memories of 2003, 2006 or the record-breaking 1995 summer rather distant at this stage.

Why the jet stream is so persistently to the south in summer in this part of the Atlantic is not fully understood. The dramatic warming of the Arctic may well be implicated, as the temperature gradient between the poles and equator, which drives the jet stream, diminishes.

But whatever the cause, the effect of the jet’s southerly location is to bottle the heat in continental Europe, with only the occasional breakout of a warm plume of continental air over Ireland, such as we had in mid-July when temperatures briefly exceeded 30 degrees.

Thus, while globally each of the past 12 months has been the warmest on record, on this Atlantic margin the full effects of global warming are slow to materialise.

The oceans are the great damper on global warming, soaking up excess heat and making locations on their margins more equable than the continental interiors. Ninety per cent of our greenhouse warming has been absorbed by them so far. Over the past 25 years they have absorbed more than 2 x 1,023 joules of our excess heat energy, the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs exploding every second. But they also are warming up now and their heat-buffering ability may be weakening.

So, despite our perception of summer 2016 as average, temperatures in Ireland are running more than 0.5 degrees warmer for the three summer months than the average for 1961-1990.Climate change is well under way in Ireland and, as a mid-latitude country, we can ultimately expect to mirror the global trend.

Extreme events

While we don’t perceive ongoing changes in averages very well, we do remember extreme events, and it is changes in extremes that really herald climate change.

We remember the delayed spring of 2013 that cost Irish agriculture €500 million, the stormiest winter on record in 2013-2014 that cost insurers €156 million, and the exceptional rainfall and floods of last winter. Some €106 million was made available by the Government this spring for local authorities to repair infrastructure as a result of the December-January events, while insurance claims were estimated at €85 million. That would have been much more had thousands of properties not been denied flood insurance.

Reconstruction of Irish rainfall records have recently confirmed that last winter was the wettest in Ireland since 1850 and probably at least since 1765. Indeed, for individual locations, the rainfall was of the order expected once in half a millennium or greater.

Clearly exceptional events are occurring and it would seem Ireland is heading for a “new normal” whereby the costs of extreme events in a typical year can be expected to be in the €100 million- €200 million range.

Despite this, urgency in adapting to climate change is not demonstrated. Under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, a draft national climate change adaptation framework must be submitted to the Government for approval only by December 2017. One would think that a responsible reaction to these expensive lessons in vulnerability would be to champion greenhouse gas reduction efforts on the international stage.

Given Ireland’s proud record of assisting developing nations, one would think that a commitment to climate justice would also underpin a determination to lead the posse on this topic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The solemn obligations agreed to by Irish political leaders, both in government and as members of the European Parliament, are being systematically sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

Powerful lobby

Efforts by the European Commission to enforce a more realistic decarbonisation road map have been stymied by a powerful lobby, with the result that the dismembering of targets is frequently presented for public consumption as a national triumph for our negotiators. Selling powdered milk to Shanghai mothers is considered a national priority above reducing national greenhouse gas emissions.

This summer has seen the near-elimination of greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020-2030 for Ireland, the complete elimination of methane from the national emission ceilings directive and an initial proposal by the commission for a 30 per cent reduction in European ammonia emissions by 2025 translated into a 5 per cent reduction for Ireland by 2030.

In each case the powerful “agro lobby” was instrumental in achieving what they perceive to be in their sectoral interest.

Sadly, behind the scenes, Ireland, though ostensibly concerned about climate change, wants everyone but itself to do something about it.

Instead of a country that can look an Ethiopian farmer or even a Shannon-side resident squarely in the eye, proud in the knowledge that we are in the vanguard of efforts to reduce the climate pollution instrumental in causing their problems, we are the freeloaders of Europe. John Sweeney is a climatologist and emeritus professor of geography at Maynooth University

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