The last week of February saw temperatures soar across the UK. Everywhere, people took to the parks, ice creams in hand, to bask under bright blue skies and glorious sunshine.
No one can deny that temperatures this high are unheard of this early in the year: the UK’s record for February was set in 1998, when temperatures in Greenwich reached 19.7 °C. But, on the 25th February 2019, a high of 20.6 °C was recorded in Trawsgoed, Wales, marking the first time temperatures have topped 20 °C in winter.
After the chilly winter months, I enjoyed the warmth as much as the next person – but, there was a sense of uneasiness impossible to ignore. This time last year, ‘the Beast from the East’ was raging across the UK. Temperatures were sub-zero, and snow covered the landscape. People took to the internet to post pictures of the same locations taken in February 2018 and 2019 side by side. We are experiencing more extreme weather events year on year…but why? Are these one-off, freak events or evidence of long-term trend climate change?
High pressure air and the Foehn effect:
The Met Office attributes the warm weather of February 2019 to two things. The first is unusually high pressure across continental Europe. This brought warm air from the Canary Islands and North Africa across the continent, warming the UK in the process. Secondly, the Foehn effect is thought to have boosted temperatures. High humidity winds flow over mountains, condense, and forms clouds. Heavy rain occurs on one side of the mountain, while the air gets warmer and drier as it sinks on the other side. This played a part in creating the sunny conditions seen in the last week of February.
While these climatic processes explain the unusual heat of February 2019, we need to think about why climatic interactions themselves are changing. Meteorologists are now studying how much of this heat can be attributed to man-made climate change.
What do the experts say?
Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a climate researcher at Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, conducted a preliminary study on UK temperature data and found February’s high temperatures to be “at least a one in 200-year event.” Temperatures deviated so far from the normal, current climate models couldn’t account for the change. Professor James Screen, a climate scientist from the University of Exeter, claims “it’s very hard to say that a couple of days of good weather is because of climate change.” However, he confirms we are seeing an increase in extreme heat events due to increasing mean global temperatures, as shown in the past decades. For example, around 500 years of temperature data shows that the five coldest years range from 1695 to 1902. The five hottest years all occurred since 2005. While experts are not yet sure the events of February 2019 are fully accounted for by climate change, there is no doubt it played a part.
Why should we care?
The sun is shining, the last thing you want to think about is the impending threat of extreme heat events. However, in 2003, a heatwave across Europe caused 70,000 deaths. Climate studies showed this extreme heat was attributable to anthropogenic warming. Carbon emissions are severely impacting human wellbeing: we have already caused a 1 °C increase in global temperatures and according to a major UN report we have ‘locked in’ an additional 0.5 °C warming. If we reach 2 °C warming, it is predicted that 411 million people will suffer from water shortages.
As an ecology student, I’m concerned with how extreme events impact wildlife. The early heat has seen species such as hedgehogs, bats and dormice coming out of hibernation too early. This puts them at risk as they use fat stores they need to reserve. They also wake up before their primary plant food sources have bloomed so they suffer food shortages, a process known as ‘trophic mismatch.’
We really need to ‘sober up’ to the realities of our impact on the climate – a thought shared by Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. The government is going backwards on climate action, unsurprising when you hear the first climate debate in parliament for two years was barely attended by MPs. In the wake of issues like Brexit, climate action seems to be low on the government’s priority list. However, Lucas claims she finds, “huge hope from the rising tide of activism” after students took to the streets to demand climate action last month. Public acknowledgment of climate change pressures the government to change legislation so, in Lucas’ words: “if sunbathing in February doesn’t feel right to you, get out on the streets instead.”
Lecture by Professor Gareth Pheonix, University of Sheffield, 2018.