The UK is known globally for many things, including the gloriously unpredictable British weather, and as inhabitants of this country we all enjoy talking about it. A recent survey by Wilkinsons (2013) found that the average Briton moans about the weather 4 times per day (for a total of 8 minutes and 21 seconds). However recently my guess is that discussions about the weather have taken up slightly more time that the survey average.
What's been happening?
This winter, the UK has been affected very severely by an exceptional run of winter storms. The effects of this weather have been experienced across the country with the disruption of transport networks, destruction of buildings and infrastructure in coastal areas and widespread flooding, causing particular devastation for the rural communities on the Somerset Levels. Climate change scientists are forecasting that this may be a taster of the extreme weather that we will come to experience in the future due to rising anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. This will impact on agriculture and produce challenges in day to day farm management as well as longer term business decisions.
"Extreme weather events are a massive risk to agriculture," said Peter Kendall (NFU President). "Farmers can adapt to gradual temperature increases, but extreme weather events have the potential to completely undermine production. It could be drought, it could be too much rain, it could be extreme heat at the wrong time. It's the extreme that does the damage."
Met Office Study
So is this recent pattern of extreme weather the result of climate change? Is this a taster of what is to come and what we as farmers will have to deal with in the future? The Met Office and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology have released a paper looking at whether climate change has contributed to the severity of this weather and its impacts.
The study admits that "although no individual storm can be recognised as exceptional, the clustering and persistence of the storms is highly unusual." The Chief Scientist from the Met Office Dame Julia Slingo confirms this, "we have records going back to 1760 and we have nothing like this, we have seen some exceptional weather." Historical data shows that for England and Wales, this was one of, if not the most extraordinary period of winter rainfall in the last 248 years. Reading the report reveals more of these statistics that point at the fact that this weather is the most extreme in terms of rainfall, flow rates, and tracks of storms for a long time. The study concludes that "as yet, there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change to the recent storminess, rainfall amounts and the consequent flooding. This is in part due to the highly variable nature of UK weather and climate." The study highlights the need for further in-depth research in terms of climate modelling to look at different extreme weather events.
A changing climate
Despite the conclusions of the study, the recent weather highlights the fact that as farmers and growers we need to look at how we grow crops and produce livestock and how resilient these systems are to these extreme weather events. Obviously when we look at the effect the folding has had in Somerset, we can't act in isolation. The various government agencies and organisations that manage the landscape alongside farmers have a part to play including maintaining a fluvial dredging regime and looking at the viability of financial incentives to encourage improved water infiltration into the soil (for example maintaining soil structure and planting trees). We also can't ignore the extent of what has happened recently and the effect that it will have on day to day farming into the spring and beyond. Soils are likely to remain close to saturation into the early spring, which not only maintains the risk of flooding in response to event moderate amounts of rainfall, but will also impact on spring cultivations and planting, as well as provide worry in terms of slurry storage and livestock housing for those affected.
Planning for the future
Looking ahead in the longer term, even if the science does conclude that the recent storms are not the result of climate change, it gives us a stark insight into what the future could look like. As farmers and growers, looking at ways to minimise emissions on-farm, makes good business sense. Measuring where you are now, by using a Carbon Calculator will allow you to develop a baseline to work from and see areas where on-farm improvements can be made. The toolkit section of the website, will allow you to explore potential management options, broken down into sections including soil management, crop and livestock management and becoming energy efficient. Making your business as resilient as possible not just to climate change but to extreme weather events will allow you to remain ahead of the game in terms of long term stability, and may also highlight areas for improved efficiency and cost savings.