Category Archives: climate science

Lockdown Nature Walks 3

In this third post on Nature Walks during the Lockdown, I want to take you on a very short stroll, only a few steps in fact, into our front garden.  It’s a small garden but it’s south facing and sheltered and it comes to life in the spring, especially on a sunny day.

I stand in the garden and listen.  Today is cooler and breezier than it has been for some days and, across the street, the wind wanders through the developing leaf canopy on the tall sycamore creating a low rushing sound.  A buzzard mews as it circles overhead, a few gulls gossip on the roof tops and a greenfinch wheezes nearby.

But there is one sound I have become accustomed to that I can’t hear today.  This is the continuous low buzz that has been coming from the front hedge on warmer, sunnier days.  The hedge is a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) and for several weeks has been covered in small fleshy green leaves and bright orange-red, cup-shaped flowers filled with yellow stamens (see picture at the head of this post).  The flame-coloured flowers flare brightly in the spring sunshine, but they tend to be partly buried by green foliage tempering their overall impact.  Once the flowers fade this will be just another green hedge but, in the autumn, when the leaves fall, they reveal attractive pale green fleshy fruits that seem to have appeared from nowhere.  For now, though, the flowers celebrate the spring by being a magnet for all kinds of bee.  Unlike many flowers, there seem to be no preferences and I have seen honeybees, several species of bumblebee and several species of solitary bee, many loaded with yellow pollen; the almost continuous presence of bees working the flowers produces this spring buzz.  I have tried to get pictures of the different bees feeding from the flowers but this has been unusually difficult. It feels as though when the bees see me, they move quickly to flowers deeper in the hedge although I did manage a couple of photos.

A solitary bee resting on the quince leaves. This is probably a mining bee but it is impossible from the photo to determine the species.

 

Another solitary bee, this time feeding from the quince flowers. She is carrying plenty of pollen and when I first saw her I thought she was probably a furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.).

 

Spring has, however, recently moved up a gear.  There are two small bee houses attached to the front of our house and, a year ago, these were occupied by red mason bees who filled some of the holes, topping them off with reddish mud.  Just over a week ago, two of the mud plugs were broken and out came two red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) males.  There are now at least six and they spend their time flying frantically about the bee houses dancing in the air, sometimes stopping to look in one of the holes, sometimes resting on the wall in the sun and sometimes feeding from nearby flowers.  They are brimming with sexual energy, waiting for females to emerge from the bee houses, desperate to mate and their pent up excitement sometimes leads to mistaken male on male mating attempts.  Male red mason bees are very attractive insects and it’s worth pausing to look.  They are about two thirds the size of a honeybee, and notable for their long antennae, pale facial hair and striking bands of orange hair across the abdomen that sparkle in the sun.

A male red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) resting on the bee house in the sunshine

 

It’s always an exciting time when the mason bees appear and busy themselves around the bee house.  It’s a sign to me that spring has really arrived and summer will follow and I am reassured that nature is still following its plan.

As if to serenade the emergence of the mason bees, the cherry tree near the hedge also burst into flower this week.  I had been watching the tree and thought there would be plenty of blossom and it is now covered in sprays of small white flower buds each clasped by five green sepals.  Many of the buds have opened revealing five pure white petals on each flower, the sepals having bent backwards.  Within the flower there is more to see, a mass of stamens each topped with a yellow anther, also a single thicker pale green pistil.  Our tree is a Morello cherry, a cooking variety and self-fertile but pollination depends on insects to transfer pollen between anther and pistil.  As if to underline this point, as more flowers have opened, I have noticed a stream of insects coming to feed from the flowers including hoverflies, solitary bees and even some of the mason bees from the bee houses.  Some of the solitary bees went systematically from flower to flower so pollination should be fine and, providing the birds are kept at bay, we should enjoy a good crop of fruit in the late summer.

I don’t expect the flowers to last very long so it’s important sometimes to stop, stand back and admire the tree in its spring guise covered with pure white flowers, and remember the poem “Loveliest of Trees” where A E Housman saw his cherry “hung with snow”.

A spray of cherry buds each clasped by green sepals.

 

Mature flowers on the cherry tree showing the five pure white petals. The yellow-tipped stamens and the thicker pale green pistil can be seen more easily if the picture is enlarged by clicking.

 

A hoverfly feeding from the cherry flowers and hopefully pollinating them. This may be a Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax).

 

Signs of spring?

Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK.  Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms:  in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures.   Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.

Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.

Westcombe Beach

One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon.  This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations.  The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects.  Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds.   They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.

Portuguese Man o’War (some of the features of these organisms are lost when they are beached)

During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine.  As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.

The flowers of Alexanders with a fly (probably a Yellow Dungfly)

Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path.  It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below.  This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.

Fox moth caterpillar

Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham.  Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers.  The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]

Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach.  Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them.  They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn.  The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass.  Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention.  Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water.  We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.

Male and female toads

There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.

Blackthorn flowers on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

 

Greater stitchwort on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them.  There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.

Bombus pratorum queen (January 20th 2020)

A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing.  Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna.  But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.

For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK.   When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001.  In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so.   Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences.  For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles.  Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food.  We are entering uncertain times.

Change is coming whether they like it or not

[This post is dedicated to the 100s of  MPs who  chose not to attend a debate in parliament on climate change in a week when the UK experienced its hottest ever winter’s day.]

 

Blizzards, strong winds, drifting snow, bitter cold – that was the story in early March last year when the “Beast from the East” collided with storm Emma bringing extreme weather and disruption to life across large parts of the UK.  Towards the end of June, by contrast, the sun began to shine and daytime temperatures climbed into the thirties and stayed that way across much of the country until August (the picture at the top of this post shows the effect of the long hot summer on the UK countryside).  Elsewhere across the globe, reports came in of flooding, wildfires, severe tropical storms and unusually high and low temperatures.  Many of these weather extremes can be attributed to climate change and there is considerable concern that the planet is heading for climate catastrophe.  David Attenborough expressed this fear at a climate change conference in Poland:  “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

 

Heavy snow falling in early March while a great tit continues to feed

 

In the UK, it was the long, hot summer, the joint hottest on record, that made people think most about a changing climate.  The weather here is, of course, notoriously fickle and some will remember that in 1976, we experienced a similar long, hot, dry summer, so how can we disentangle normal weather variation from climate change?  One way of looking at this was shown by Simon Lee, a PhD student at the University of Reading, who shared graphs on Twitter of the global temperature anomalies in June 1976 and in June 2018 (see pictures below).  These show that in 1976 the UK was one of a few unusually hot spots in an otherwise cooler than average world whereas in 2018 much of the world, including the UK, was hotter than the average.   The 2018 picture shows climate change in action: the planet is warmer making heatwaves more likely.

 

The pictures show temperatures across the world in June 1976 (upper panel) and in June 2018 (lower panel) compared to the average across the period 1951-1980. Red and yellow mean higher, blue means lower. Kindly supplied by Simon Lee who generated the images from NASA/GISS data.

Careful measurements of the average surface temperature of the planet show that it is currently about 1oC hotter than in pre-industrial times.  This may not seem very much but it is enough to disturb the complex systems that create our weather.  As a result, heatwaves may be more frequent in summer and, in winter, polar air may be directed southwards bringing abnormal, freezing temperatures.  Also, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so that rain and snow may be more severe.  Climate breakdown might be an apt description of these changes.

This global heating is a result of human activity.  The emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, oil and petrol, traps heat in the atmosphere so the temperature of the world increases.  We have known this for some time and we have also known that the solution is to reduce carbon emissions. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have, however, continued to climb because no government has had the will to introduce the extreme lifestyle changes required to curb emissions.  Some governments, including our own, have even encouraged the continuing extraction of fossil fuels.

It is, therefore, significant that in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report containing a dire warning: we must make urgent and unprecedented changes to the way we live if we are to limit heating to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.  To achieve this target, we must reduce net global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050 – fossil fuel use must be drastically reduced by the middle of the 21st century but we must start the reduction now.  Should we fail to achieve this 1.5oC target, the risks of drought, flooding, extreme heat, poverty and displacement of people leading to wars will increase significantly.  The world will no longer be the place we know and love and parts of it will become uninhabitable for humans and the rest of nature.

How do we achieve this reduction in carbon emissions? Voluntary measures such as suggesting people fly or drive less will not work.  The only way this reduction can be achieved is through coordinated government action based on recommendations made in the IPCC report.  These include the planting of more forests and the chemical capture of carbon dioxide to reduce atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.  There must also be a drastic shift in energy production and in transport away from fossil fuels and this can be driven in part by investment and subsidies directed towards clean technologies.  A carbon tax can also help drive this shift but the tax will need to be high enough to force change, for example by taxing energy companies who burn fossil fuels so that they invest in cleaner technologies.  In the short term, costs to consumers may rise, so politicians would need to keep the public on side, for example, through tax incentives.  If we grasp the opportunity, the scale of change may have the unexpected bonus of allowing us to design more sustainable and equitable societies.

The IPCC report set out very clearly the changes required to avoid damaging global climate change so there was great anticipation when the UN Climate Change Conference convened in Katowice in Poland just before Christmas.  Astonishingly, given the gravity of the situation, the 200 countries represented there failed to agree new ambitious targets for greater reductions in carbon emissions. Four countries (USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait) would not even sign a document welcoming the IPCC report; these countries are of course all oil producers.

It was at this conference that David Attenborough issued his warning about the collapse of civilisations but there was another hugely impressive intervention.  This came from 15-year old activist Greta Thunberg from Sweden.  She had already achieved some notoriety through her weekly climate strikes where she missed one day of school to protest about climate change.  Her actions have stimulated many thousands of young people around the world to do likewise.  Thunberg also spoke in London at the launch of the new grass-roots movement, Extinction Rebellion, which intends to use peaceful protest to force governments to protect the climate.  These new trends offer some hope for the future since it is the young of today that will bear the climate of tomorrow.

Greta Thunberg, 2018 (cropped)
Greta Thunberg

Here is part of Greta Thunberg’s speech given at the Katowice conference:

“For 25 years countless people have come to the UN climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So, I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future, I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.”

“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago. We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.”

I am grateful to Simon Lee for generously supplying the temperature anomaly graphs.

This article was published in the March 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Death and destruction at Dawlish Warren

As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine.  The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt.  Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.

We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible.  We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.

The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer.  Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm.  On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this.  A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles).  I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent.  Near the promenade there must have been thousands.

As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing.  After an explanation, the woman said:

“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”

 

We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.

The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable.  No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree.  Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach.   Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course.  These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.

Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush.   A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time.  Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.

The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting.  There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides.  During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive.  We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns.  On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage.  Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.

The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach.  Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences.  Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached.  The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris.  In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.

Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold.  Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away.  As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.

As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins.  A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.

We visited Dawlish Warren on March 6th 2018

Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach
Sand heaped on the retaining wall and debris piled on the beach at Dawlish Warren

 

Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach close up
Some plastic debris on Dawlish Warren Beach

 

Plastic pellets Dawlish Warren
A selection of plastic pellets found on Dawlish Warren Beach. If you enlarge this picture and look around you will see several clear plastic nurdles, several yellow ones and many cylindrical pellets (grey, pale blue and white). Also a few biobeads noted for the fine ridges around the outside. The larger plastic balls are not nurdles or biobeads.

 

Brent Geese take flight at Dawlish Warren
Brent Geese take flight above the inner bay at Dawlish Warren (photo by Hazel Strange)

 

 

Dead lapwings at Dawlish Warren
Several dead lapwings
Damaged sand cliffs at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences

 

Debris on groyne post at Dawlish Warren
Debris on top of groyne post

 

Dune fences destroyed at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences

 

The surprising story of oil in Dorset.

[Please read the important amendment at the end of this article]

A few months ago, I visited Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I went  to look at the oil well on the cliffs above the beach and wrote about my experience.  The Kimmeridge oil reserve is quite small but further east there are huge additional reserves of oil extending for several kilometres under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay.  I wanted to write about these much larger deposits and the environmental effects of extraction: my article, which also takes another look at some of the Kimmeridge story, appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. Here is the article:

It’s difficult to believe but one of the most beautiful parts of Dorset in the south west of the UK is home to the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe. And yet the day to day impact on most residents and on the local environment is minimal. Perhaps the Dorset oil experience can help us predict the potential environmental effects of shale gas extraction by fracking in other parts of the UK? Let’s look at the story of oil in Dorset and see what we can learn.

“Kimmeridge Coal”

Medieval times were harsh for most people but if you lived near Kimmeridge Bay in the Isle of Purbeck, you had one thing going for you; some of the rocks exposed in the cliffs would burn so you had a ready-made fuel for heating and cooking. The locals called it “Kimmeridge Coal” and it didn’t matter that it smelt awful, it was available and it was free. The same logic drove Sir William Clavell in the 17th century to set up alum works at Kimmeridge using the fuel. His efforts came to nothing because of patent restrictions so he turned to making salt by boiling sea water and subsequently he set up a glass works, but neither enterprise prospered.

“Kimmeridge Coal” is found in bands of bituminous shale in the cliffs around Kimmeridge Bay but further exploitation of the material had to wait until the 19th century when it was realised that useful hydrocarbons might be extractable. Processing plants were set up at Weymouth and at Wareham making varnish, grease, pitch, naphtha, paraffin and paraffin wax and in 1848 the street lights of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps powered by gas derived from the shale. The industry never prospered, possibly because the high sulphur content made the gas unsuitable for domestic use.

Kimmeridge oil shale is a useful material but it is not a source of conventional crude oil. Ironically, the first discovery of crude oil in Dorset also occurred at Kimmeridge Bay but it comes from rocks lying well below the shale deposits.

The Kimmeridge “nodding donkey”

Oil pump
The Kimmeridge nodding donkey

The search for oil in Dorset began in the 1930s but it was not until 1959 that the first well producing oil and gas was discovered below Kimmeridge Bay. The well is extracted by a single beam “nodding donkey” pump on the cliffs above the Bay that has worked continuously for more than 50 years; it is the oldest working oil well in the UK and the “nodding donkey” is now part of the local scenery. The Kimmeridge well produced 350 barrels of oil a day at its peak but this has now declined to a fifth of that level. Although the Kimmeridge reservoir is not large, the discovery prompted the search for other oil deposits in Dorset.

The largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe – hidden near Poole Harbour

The energy crises of the 1970s led to further exploration in Dorset and in 1974, oil and gas were discovered by the Gas Council at Wytch Farm on the southern side of Poole Harbour. Production started in 1979 and nowadays the Anglo-French company Perenco owns the majority stake in the oil field. There are three large reservoirs of oil 1-2 km below the sea, extending up to 10 km under Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island, Sandbanks and to the south of Bournemouth. Peak production was in 1997 at 110,000 barrels of oil per day; current levels are about 18,000 barrels per day. The field also produces natural gas (for domestic use) and liquid petroleum gas.

nodding donkeys Wytch Farm
Some of the Wytch Farm nodding donkeys (photo courtesy of Perenco)

 

Furzey Island
Furzey Island in Poole Harbour showing the “hidden” oil wells (photo courtesy of Perenco)

 

There are 12 well sites distributed around Wytch Farm, the Goathorn Peninsula and Furzey island from which more than 100 wells have been drilled. There is also a gathering station where the products of the wells are collected, processed and distributed. This is a large industrial enterprise, the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe and the second largest consumer of electricity in the South of England (after Heathrow Airport).

Hengistbury Head looking west
Poole Bay viewed from Hengistbury Head – oil reservoirs and long distance drills extend under the sea 1-2 km below the surface (from Wikipedia).
The paradox is that this industrial complex operates in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so the site has been developed with this is mind. Buildings are on sites that have been excavated to reduce height and are screened by trees. Facilities are painted a dull brown and the number of well sites has been minimised by drilling long distances horizontally away from the well site in to the oil deposits; until 2008 Wytch Farm held the world record for the longest drill extending 10.1 km under Poole Bay. In consequence, this large industrial complex has minimal impact on the surrounding countryside and most people are unaware of the activity.

Goathorn Peninsula
An oil rig on the Goathorn Peninsula used for long distance directional drilling (Photo from Wikipedia, taken in 2006) .

 

Lessons from Dorset oil

Wytch Farm is a great success story, both in terms of the oil and gas produced and the minimal environmental impact. Some have used the Wytch Farm experience to suggest that fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) in other parts of the UK will also have a minimal environmental impact, even suggesting, incorrectly, that fracking has already occurred at Wytch Farm.

Although similar drilling technology is used to extract crude oil and to release shale gas, fracking uses large volumes of high pressure liquid (mostly water) to create fissures in low permeability rock and this has not been carried out at Wytch Farm. Also each potential fracking site is likely to be unique and different from Wytch Farm in terms of the density of wells required, the density of population and the nature of the countryside. Dorset oil has been managed to minimise environmental impact but it would be wrong to use the Dorset oil experience to predict the general environmental impact of fracking elsewhere.

There is, of course, one important issue I have not considered here:  should we continue to extract and use oil given the need to prevent global climate change?  Take a look at the complementary article for my views on that.

Important amendment:  In September 2018 it was revealed that the Kimmeridge oil pump has been legally  leaking the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere for nearly 60 years.  The story is covered here.  This disclosure changes very considerably my view of the environmental impact of the Kimmeridge oil pump.

We need to act now to protect the world from damaging climate change

It is clear: to restrict global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade we need to leave most of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We must stop using oil, coal and gas and, instead, we must use renewable, zero-carbon energy sources.

And yet, politicians sit on their hands and do very little to encourage both reduced use of fossil fuels and increased use of renewables.

The Guardian Newspaper has decided to increase their coverage of these issues, giving them a much higher priority and starting with a series of articles on its front page. With the Guardian’s global on-line reach this is a step change in both thinking and action on this topic.

The articles are an excellent resource for understanding the current situation and begin with a statement from their chief editor, Alan Rusbridger: Climate change: why the Guardian is putting threat to Earth front and centre

This is followed by:

Two extracts from Naomi Klein’s book “This changes everything”

“Climate fight won’t wait for Paris, vive la resistance” by climate activist Bill McKibben

“Keep it in the ground” by George Monbiot

I urge you to read some or all of these articles.

 

Here is a link to an article by another blogger that also covers the Guardian’s climate change series.

The image at the head of this article is of a tornado and comes from Wikipedia.

For global warming please read global weirding – how climate change is affecting our lives

Here is an article I wrote for the April edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

South Devon Railway sea wall breach February 2014
Storm damage at Dawlish in South Devon where the sea wall and railway line were destroyed

This winter, the UK experienced an exceptional series of storms. Heavy rain combined with strong winds and high waves lead to widespread coastal flooding and coastal damage. There was significant disruption to individuals, businesses and infrastructure and many parts of the country were affected. Transport was badly hit including the destruction of the main railway line into the south west at Dawlish.

This was indeed extreme weather and we now know that in England and Wales this was the wettest winter for almost 250 years. We are not alone, however, in experiencing extreme weather. The eastern side of the US and Canada was unusually cold this winter whereas California suffered a severe drought. Australia and Argentina experienced exceptionally high temperatures whereas Brazil received record rainfall.

The extreme weather has had the interesting effect of finally making politicians speak up about climate change. Here is what David Cameron said recently: “I believe man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces.” John Kerry went a step further, placing climate change alongside disease, terrorism, poverty and weapons of mass destruction as global threats.

But before we get carried away by band-wagon jumping politicians, let’s think about what is really going on. What we have been experiencing recently in the UK is extreme weather. Climate change, however, refers to long term changes in weather patterns. The UK weather is notoriously unpredictable so is there really any evidence for changes in weather patterns that would indicate a change in our climate?

A study of UK weather over the last 140 years found evidence for an increase in the intensity of winter storms hitting the southern part of the country. Instances of heavy rain have also increased in frequency, consistent with a warming planet where a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Additionally, global warming has caused sea levels to rise by about 12 cm during the 20th century exacerbating the effects of storms at the coast. The climate in the UK is indeed changing and the recent extreme weather is part of this.

If the climate is changing then we come to the biggest and the most contentious question: why is it changing? Here we need to look at a bit of climate science. The earth is warmed by energy from the sun and as the planet heats up it radiates heat outwards. Some of this heat is retained by so-called greenhouse gases, for example water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane in the earth’s atmosphere. As a result the temperature of the earth is maintained at a level compatible with human life. This is the way it had been for many thousands of years, in fact until the industrial revolution. Since the industrial revolution, however, humans have been increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, principally in two ways: by burning fossil fuels (those laid down many years ago from decaying plants and animals) and by cutting down forests (reducing carbon dioxide removal by trees). Increased levels of carbon dioxide mean greater heat retention and the earth’s surface temperature is now nearly one degree centigrade warmer. This may not seem very much but there is also a huge reservoir of heat accumulating in the oceans. Taken together these are the processes described as global warming.

It doesn’t stop there: increased warming leads to disturbances in weather patterns. Higher sea temperatures cause melting of ice so that sea levels rise and the effects of storm surges are greater. Reduction in the size and thickness of the Arctic ice cap is also thought by some to lead to changing weather patterns in Europe. Warmer oceans mean that when storms and hurricanes occur they are stronger. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so that when a storm arises the rainfall is more intense. An example of these effects is provided by Typhoon Haiyan which killed at least 6000 people in the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan was the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall anywhere in the world and was fuelled by warm water in the Pacific. Weather patterns are shifting and rather than talking about global warming we could speak of global weirding; in the end, however, it all comes down to climate change.

The implications of these observations for human life have led to intense debate about how much of the change in climate can be attributed to human activity. Among climate scientists, there is a strong consensus that climate change is a result of human activity (burning fossil fuels and deforestation). Last year a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised the shift in patterns of extreme weather since 1950 and concluded that most of the rise in global temperature since the mid 20th century was due to human activity. They also warned that without substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gases, there will be further warming and damaging climate change.

The message could hardly be clearer. Human activity is causing climate change. The sort of extreme weather we have experienced lately will recur. Things can only get worse if we sit on our hands and do nothing as we have been doing so far.

We, therefore, need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and this means leaving fossil fuels in the ground rather than burning them. We urgently need a second industrial revolution that embraces and implements low carbon technologies. Governments must stimulate investment in these technologies and politicians must show vision and leadership.

Since I wrote this article, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a new report showing that climate change is already affecting life in many parts of the world and may threaten food supplies in the future.

Bloody British weather or a wake-up call?

Here is an article I wrote for the December edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine considering whether the recent awful summer weather could be a reflection of climate change.

Summer this year was the wettest for a century and Dorset experienced some particularly heavy downpours early in the season.  Rainfall at Portland and at Hurn in the first ten days of July was nearly three times the normal monthly average.   Several rivers burst their banks and towns were flooded including Bridport and Burton Bradstock.  Devon was also badly affected and Modbury, Ottery St Mary and Yealmpton were inundated.  The torrential rain in Dorset caused a landslip at the Beaminster Tunnel where two people died.  The rain also undermined the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast leading to a 400 ton rock fall that killed one person near Hive Beach.

Flooding in Burton Bradstock, West Dorset, July 2012

Our notoriously changeable weather depends on many factors but this summer it has been dominated by the Jet Stream.   This is a band of fast moving winds running eastwards across the Atlantic high up in the atmosphere separating cooler northerly air and warmer southerly air.  The Jet Stream is important for our climate as it guides Atlantic weather systems bringing rain and unsettled conditions.  In a typical summer the Jet Stream lies to the north of the UK shielding us from these weather systems and bringing milder, settled conditions.   This summer, the Jet Stream lay below the UK so the weather was cooler and wetter and because it did not move, this pattern persisted for several months.

The position of the Jet Stream could simply be a result of natural variation and most of us will shrug our shoulders and blame the awful summer of 2012 on “bloody British weather”.  We do, however, live in a world where changes in conditions in one part of the globe may affect the weather in another part.  Some climate scientists are beginning to wonder if the weather in Europe is being influenced by changes in sea ice many miles away in the Arctic.

At the North Pole there is a large mass of pack ice formed from sea water in this very cold part of the world; this is the Arctic sea ice.   The size of this ice pack varies by season, partly melting in the warmer months and then refreezing as the cold returns.  There has been a long term trend towards less ice in the warmer months and this reached a record low in September 2007.  Slightly more summer ice was seen in subsequent years but in 2012 the record was broken again; the level of Arctic summer ice was the lowest since records began.  This had not been expected and scientists were surprised and shocked by the extent and speed of Arctic sea ice loss.  If, as seems likely, the loss continues, summer sea ice will disappear altogether from the Arctic some time this century.  This represents a major change to the planet that should concern us all.

One of the principal drivers of this major change in the North Polar ice cap seems to be global warming; as the sea temperature increases so the ice melts more.  Much of this effect on the polar ice can be attributed to human activity; burning of fossil fuels (e.g. coal, gas, petroleum) raises levels of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, causing warming.  Loss of such a large amount of sea ice has major effects on the planet.  Most importantly, loss of the ice accelerates warming of the sea; the sun’s rays are no longer reflected away by the ice and the heat is absorbed by the sea.  This is very serious for the stability of the climate.

There is also an indication that loss of the sea ice affects the position of the Jet Stream and makes it stay in one place longer.    In consequence, weather patterns are maintained for longer; periods of wet weather may lead to floods and periods of dry weather may generate drought.  These changes are compounded in that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture leading to heavier rain.  The loss of Arctic sea ice may, therefore, have contributed to our poor summer and we may now be experiencing the effects of climate change in the UK.

The unexpectedly large and continuing loss of the polar ice cap should be a major wake-up call to governments that the planet is changing.  We are all beginning to feel the effects.     The solution is clear, we must reduce use of fossil fuels; this will not reverse the changes but may slow them down. Unfortunately, governments still look on with disbelief and do nothing.   It is a disgrace that climate change did not feature at all in the recent US presidential debates, especially when the US is one of the major users of fossil fuels.  Perhaps the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy will make the US think again about extreme weather events.

But it gets worse.  The response of industry to the melting of the Arctic ice has been to see opportunities for trade.  Oil, gas, mining and shipping companies are rushing to expand operations in the Arctic as the ice recedes and new sea routes open up.   This has the potential for environmental catastrophe as well as leading to greater emission of carbon dioxide and acceleration of climate change.

Let’s finish by quoting Bill McKibben, the environmental campaigner, on the loss of Arctic sea ice:  “Our response (so far) has not been alarm, panic or a sense of emergency.  It has been “Let’s go up there and drill for oil”.  There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we’ve ever faced”.

Nowhereisland – nowhere to be seen?

Nowhereisland at Torquay

If you were in Weymouth at the start of the Olympic sailing you may have been surprised to see a mysterious new island appear off the Dorset coast.  This was Nowhereisland, part of a public arts project realised by the Devon-based artist Alex Hartley. The island and its Embassy are to travel round the South West over the next few weeks.  I went to see it at Exmouth but, although the Embassy was there, ironically the island was nowhere to be seen.  Apparently, the weather got the better of it; it couldn’t travel and this ephemeral new nation had to be protected by the motherland in Portland harbour.  Since then, it has sailed on to Torquay, Plymouth and Cornwall  and it has been “occupied” by members of the Devon and Cornwall wild swimmers who staged a coup d’état, unfurled a banner and populated the island with a plastic duck and rabbit.

The Nowhereisland project began when Hartley visited the High Arctic in 2004 under the auspices of Cape Farewell, a group who instigate cultural responses to climate change.  On that visit he discovered a previously-uncharted island that had been revealed by a glacier melting in response to global warming.  Hartley originally called the island Nymark (Norwegian for “new ground”) but it was given the official name of Nyskjæret.  Based on his experience he produced a large wall display, “Nymark (undiscovered island)”, containing framed rock samples, letters, maps, photos and other documentation on his discovery.  This was exhibited as part of the exhibition, Cape Farewell – Art and Climate Change, at the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool in 2006 and as part of the cross cultural arts/science project, Exploratory Laboratory, at the Bridport Arts Centre in 2010.

The project (now called Nowhereisland) acquired a much greater significance when Hartley was chosen as the artist for the South West in the “Artists Taking the Lead” section of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.  The first phase of Nowhereisland involved an expedition to the Arctic with a group of sixteen “thinkers” – artists, writers, students and academics.  The group collected six tonnes of material from Nyskjæret and brought it back to the UK where it was fashioned into a floating replica of the island.  Nowhereisland was declared a new nation on September 20th 2011 after which it was possible to become a “citizen”.

The second phase of the project involves not only the current tour of the replica island, Nowhereisland, around South West seaside towns but also the Embassy which accompanies the island.  This is a converted horse box containing a display of artefacts and memorabilia associated directly or indirectly with the project.   Three “ambassadors” are present to discuss and explain Nowhereisland.   There has also been a programme of workshops in schools and local communities to disseminate and debate the issues behind the project.

The Embassy at Exmouth

So, what are the aims of Nowhereisland?  On Hartley’s web site these are stated clearly as:  “to expand people’s view of what art is; to explore sense of place; to address the most significant global issue of our time:  namely how can we respond to the urgent issue of climate change together”.   On the project web site, the aims are more focussed on exploring the idea of a nation state.

The debate about the issues behind the project began on the expedition when the sixteen “thinkers” were asked to contribute to discussions about the implications of forming a new nation.  In particular they were asked to consider how they would begin if they started a new nation from first principles given the current failure of nation states to address important global issues.  They also experienced the effects of global warming first hand.  The debate continues on the project web site where propositions for the Constitution can be posted.

Nowhereisland has attracted criticism, achieving the unusual feat of uniting the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Taxpayer’s Alliance in common condemnation.  Some objected to the cost (£500,000) but actually this is quite low compared to the overall cost of the Olympics.   I am, however, uneasy about some aspects of Nowhereisland.  For a project concerned about the environment, was it necessary to ferry the “thinkers” to the Arctic, was it necessary to take material from the virgin island?  I feel disappointment that climate change is not at the core of the project; this is a lost opportunity to debate this crucial issue.

Having seen the project develop, however, I have warmed to it.  This is partly due to discussions with my family and discussions with the ambassadors and partly because of the public reaction.  Communities have embraced the visiting island, many people have visited the embassy and there are now about 19,000 “citizens”.  The Embassy is interesting and the ambassadors maintain enthusiasm even when the rain beats down. I have particularly enjoyed the quirky responses to the island, the occupation by the wild swimmers.

The project has brought art to the South West and has probably engaged more people than any conventional gallery-based exhibition would. As a public arts engagement project it must be seen as successful and this is summed up well by Pauline Barker, one of the wild swimmers:  “It’s designed to be an arts project to get art closer to the people, and we are the people so we decided to get as close as we possibly could”.

For more on Nowhereisland see this article.

Climate change – more uncertainty or better presentation?

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What do the following have in common?  Driving our cars, flying in a plane or using electricity made by burning coal or gas.  They all consume fossil fuels and they all put extra carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere.  The carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas” and there is broad agreement among scientists that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have driven an increase of just under one degree in global temperature during the last century.  There is also broad agreement that if we continue with our cars, planes and electricity the way we are, this will lead to further increases in global temperature coupled with climate instability.  These will lead in time to major effects on human lifestyle.

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How the planet has warmed over the past 50 years

We rely on climate models to predict the extent of future change in global temperature.  These models are complex computer simulations that try to take account of as many of the variables affecting the climate as possible.  They are, however, only models and their predictions are affected by the uncertainty of some of the information used.  For example, a key variable is the amount of carbon dioxide that will be produced in the future and this is difficult to predict with accuracy, especially with the current economic upheavals. 

A problem is now emerging with the climate models which may provide new ammunition for the climate change-deniers.  The models are becoming ever more sophisticated, which sounds good, but according to Mark Maslin and Patrick Austin, writing in last week’s Nature (“Climate models at their limit”) the new more sophisticated models may contain greater uncertainty in their predictions.   This seems to be because the models now include a wider range of influences on the climate.  If there is uncertainty in each of these influences then there will be even more uncertainty in the outcome.   This does not mean the models are worthless.  The models are still able to predict future climate change; it’s just that there is a bit more wobble on the predictions.

Maslin and Austin are concerned that “To the public and to policy makers, this will look as though the scientific understanding of climate change is become less, rather than more, clear.”   

They continue: “Scientists need to decide how to explain this effect.  Above all, the public and policy makers need to be made to understand that climate models may have reached their limit.  They must stop waiting for further certainty or persuasion and simply act.”

Maslin and Austin propose a subtle change in presentation of modelling data and call this the “when” not “if” approach.  They suggest placing the uncertainty of predictions on the date by which things will happen rather than onto whether they will happen at all.   

Let’s restate this to emphasise this important conclusion:  we know that climate change is occurring and will get worse but we cannot be sure about the precise time scale.

Somehow also we need to unblock the political process whereby so little is being done about the problem of global warming.  As Maslin and Austin put it “Politicians use public opinion and scientific uncertainty as excuses for inaction.  They used to say “we need to wait until scientists prove that mankind is causing climate change”.  That hurdle has, arguably, passed, so now they have moved on to “we need to wait until scientists can tell us exactly what will happen and what the costs are” or “we need to wait for public opinion to be behind action””. 

The reality is that scientists have already provided enough information showing that something needs to be done to halt climate change.  All countries now need to set carbon reduction targets.  These do not need to be the same for all countries and may reflect different local circumstances but unless we move to carbon reduction there will at some point be severe consequences for the planet.