THE NEW chill in East-West relations following the expulsion of four British diplomats from Russia for alleged spying is, it seems, also making itself felt in our weather. The Russians appear to have been trying to steal our spring sunshine as well.
While Moscow enjoys its hottest May on record, Britain has been shivering in the coldest May spell for nearly half a century. The first half of the month was the chilliest since 1941-at almost seven degrees Fahrenheit below average-and Friday and Saturday were among the coldest days in the second half of May since 1948, at about 14 degrees below what ! might have been expected.
What is causing this unseasonally cold blast, which has set back crops and plants for up to a month? The answer is a huge mass of high pressure near Iceland which is blocking the way for the spring's usual warm breezes, instead bringing dull, dry and cold weather. And, more importantly, why, in a decade when we are being warned about the imminent perils of global warming are we reduced to wearing our winter overcoats at the end of May? In fact, this unseasonal weather is part of a cycle of climatic change which has been caused largely by the lack of westerly and south-westerly winds, which would normally be the most frequent in Britain.
Weather expert and broadcaster Philip Eden says: 'Mother Nature is just balancing things out. For seven years we have had a tremendous excess of westerly and south-westerly winds, giving hot summers and mild winters. A change was bound to come and when it does, the contrast is very marked.'
Of course, to the British, the weather is an unfailing talking point. But, even given our keen interest in the subject last year our national preoccupation broke all records-as did the weather itself. The wettest spring on record ushered in the hottest summer, succeeded by one of the coldest winters. In short, chaos reigned-and then it rained.
That wasn't all. Freak conditions were obliging the 'global apocalypse' theorists wherever you looked. In Antarctica, an iceberg the size of Jersey broke off from the main continent and flowers bloomed on the ice shelves.
The seas off California warmed up so much that plankton populations-a vital part of the marine food chain - were devastated. Blizzards brought New York to a standstill. And our European mainland neighbours were deluged by some #appalling spring floods.
Extremes were so common that even the most hard-bitten cynics suspected that something odd was going on. Climatologists, however, needed no convincing.
Scientists on the Intergovernmental PaneI on Climate Change (IPCC), which was convened by the United Nations in December, all agreed that global warming is now an undeniable fact. They forecast a rise of 3.2f to11f in world average temperatures by the year 2100. Since the IPCC can hardly agree on what to order for lunch, that unanimous prediction was a milestone. Even Kuwait agreed-it usually resists the global warming theory because it could bring about restrictions on oil. So what exactly is going on around the globe, and what is it all leading to? Here the Mail answers the key questions . . .
YES, BUT IS IT GOING TO GET WORSE?
There may be a broad acceptance that global warming is now a fact of life, but there is still disagreement over what it will actually mean.
The optimists predict milder winters and bumper crops. They say the differences between the poles and the equator will even out, resulting in fewer severe storms. But pessimists warn that many of the world's bread baskets could empty as an ever-warming earth causes a serious mismatch between climate, soil and rainfall. They fear that small islands could be wiped out as sea levels rise by 6in to over 3ft. Eastern and North Africa could expect widespread droughts, and a balmier North Pole could alter ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, which at present warms Western Europe. In a warmer world, extremes of wet and dry will intensify. As the earth's surface warms, more moisture evaporates. In arid regions, where there is little to evaporate, droughts will become worse and rain become rare in the interiors of continents. In moist areas, such as mountains and the coasts, rainfall will increase.
AND WHAT ABOUT US IN BRITAIN?
With summer just weeks away, the big question here is whether the heatwave and drought of last year will return. Accurate predictions are impossible, but the speculative forecasts that have been made are distinctly unnerving.
For example, it seems that we can expect long-term flooding in some low-lying areas of the country.
Geologically, Britain tilts around a SW/NE axis, which means the southeast comer is sinking on its clay subsoil and is causing the high-tide level of the Thames in Central London to rise by a rate of about 30 inches a century.
Some experts fear that if sea levels continue to rise significantly the Thames Barrier, which was built to preempt flooding, could be overwhelmed.
A team of scientists, funded by the Environment Agency (which includes the former National Rivers Authority), has been recruited to monitor London's subsidence via satellite to get an accurate picture of the changes.
The agency says it takes the threat of flooding in general 'very seriously'.
In a 1994 report on the implications of climate change, it notes that even a modest sea level rise of just 91/2 in by the year 2030 could have 'a very big impact' causing some permanent flooding of land adjacent to Britain's coasts.
SO WHERE IS MOST AT RISK, THEN?
The main cause for concern centres on the south and east coasts of England, whose flood defences are expected to be put under increasing strain from stomry seas and rising water levels. Flood losses during the 1953 east coast floods topped [pounds sterling]30million (or [pounds sterling]350million at today's values). The increased coastal development which has taken place since means similar flooding today would be catastrophic.
A study carried out five years ago estimates that, even with today's improved flood defences, if the minimum sea level rose just 8in between 1990 and 2050, losses due to flooding along the East
Anglian coast could reach [pounds sterling]188million.
Losses on the heavily populated south coast would be far greater. For example, the value of coastal land between the seaside resorts of Bognor Regis and Bournemouth was recently estimated at [pounds sterling]5,745miUion.
Of that figure, some [pounds sterling]4,000miUion worth is residential property. Across the whole country, warmer weather is likely to increase outbreaks of blooms of algae in reservoirs and lakes, which can cause gastro-intestinal problems and make water treatment more difficult.
Rising sea levels may also lead to increased salinisation of tidal rivers, causing ecological problems in estuaries.
Fierce storms could bring about other public health hazards. Most storm drainage systems in old urban areas are combined with the waste sewerage system, so frequent 'flash flood' storms are likely to send tidal waves of untreated sewage into the watercourse. Run-off from urban storm drains is also often very dirty, containing toxic heavy-metal pollutants which could have serious implications for water quality in towns.
HOT SUMMERS WOULD BE NICE, THOUGH . ..
That is debatable. According to Professor Martin Parry, of the Jackson Institute of Climate Research in London, more summers such as last year's will bring major changes. 'I used to think Britain would get off lightly as global warming got worse,' he says. 'Now I realise that won't be the case.
In the South East, life will change considerably.' Professor Parry, who is a member of the IPCC, predicts that Northern Britain will get wetter while the South becomes much hotter and drier.
In response to crippling droughts
massive irrigation schemes would have to be undertaken and there would be some revolutionary changes in farming.
By 2030, sunflowers and sweetcorn could be common crops in the south and we might even see paddy fields in areas such as the Fens, which would be regularly flooded by rising sea levels. Only the intensive farming of huge strips of land would be profitable enough to pay for expensive irrigation projects, so the landscape of the South East will also change. Hedgerows, trees and ponds will be ploughed over, and many wildlife habitats drastically eroded. 'The trouble is, there's not a lot we can do about this,' says Professor Parry. 'Even if we could cut industrial emissions off at the knees, the atmosphere would continue to heat up for another 50 years-because the oceans act like a vast storage heater, holding on to heat and delaying its warming of the air about us.
'We have to face the fact that
climate change is inevitable-and possibly that it will be very unpleasant.'
AND WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?
On Philip Jones's computer screen is a polar view of the Northern Hemisphere. The image, a map of average surface temperatures in 1901, is predominantly cool blue, signifying minimal deviation. But as Mr Jones flicks ahead to 1936 the central U.S. glows red- the bust Bowl. In 1942, 1943 and 1944, Northern Europe turns dark blue.
'Those were the winters Hitler had trouble with in Russia,' says Mr Jones.
As he scrolls forwards to the present day, the annual maps blush steadily redder. The most recent, for 1995, is the reddest of them all.
Mr Jones, a world-respected British climatologist, has spent the last 17 years collating the statistics that
make up these maps. All the evidence convinces him that last year was the planet's hottest year in the hottest century in at least a millennium. And he expects that record to be broken at least once in the next five years.
The trend may seem insignificant to some. After all, Mr Jones calculates that the net rise in temperature between 1900 and 1995 was only 1.1f. By 2050, it looks set to rise by another three degrees. But these small variations can make a vast difference to temperatures on the ground.
According to estimates, the world's average temperature was a mere nine degrees colder in the depths of the last Ice Age.
Some scientists say that Mr Jones's plotting of surface temperatures ignores surveys of the atmosphere's overall temperature, which suggest it may not be changing But Mr Jones is exasperated by this. 'It's the surface we should be worried about,' he insists. 'We all live at the surface.'
A version of this article appears in the current issue of Focus magazine…