The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

A Flood of Evidence

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We keep hearing about how warm the Sochi Games are, and how skiers and snow-boarders have been really struggling in soft, slushy snow. While many see the thumbprint of climate change in the fallen and frustrated athletes, Sochi is actually having a normal winter. For whatever reason, Russia chose to host its Olympics at a subtropical resort town.

Climate change does have an obvious impact on the Olympics, as fewer and fewer cities will be able to host the Winter Games going forward. And, as I noted last week, the Games use a vast amount of energy very much in the public eye. They are therefore an ideal platform for exploring large-scale carbon neutrality projects. But Sochi itself is normal this year.

Plenty of other places are not normal.

The British Isles, in case anyone didn’t know, are more or less under water right now, and have been for weeks. According to provisional figures published by the UK Met Office, this past December and January together have been that country’s wettest since modern record-keeping began, in 1910. In England and Wales records go back longer, showing that this has been the wettest December and January since 1876/1877. This December was also the windiest since 1969, again, according to the Met Office.

Essentially, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have been being hit with a hurricane about every week or so since December. While the storms are not literally hurricanes (which don’t typically hit the UK), the storms have brought torrential rains, massive storm surges, violent surf, and hurricane-force winds.

Fields lie under water, historic buildings are being eaten away by the sea, and whole villages have been all but abandoned to the floods. Railways and roads severed by the water have left some areas isolated. Although the absolute acreage under water is not very big in relation to the country, most of the UK’s most densely populated areas are in floodplains or by the sea.

The death toll, so far, is minimal. When people die in storms the real killer is typically poverty, and these countries are well able to take care of their people. When the floods recede, the people will rebuild. The property losses could hit a billion pounds, but they can handle it. This is not a humanitarian crisis. Not yet.

But that doesn’t mean that the storms aren’t a major problem. Flooding on this scale must be terrifying for the people who live in the way and the loss of property must be very, very sad. And, while the people as a whole will recover, not all individual people will. And everyone is asking if this is climate change.

Strictly speaking, “is this storm climate change” is always the wrong question. It’s not that scientists don’t know enough, or aren’t sure that global warming is real. The real problem is that that global warming is a trend, and, by definition, trends are only visible if you look at multiple events over time. Correctly, the Met office has said that it cannot link these storms to climate change, but that more storms like these are consistent with climate change predictions.

Yet one wonders whether the Met Office’s caution is, this once, unfounded. These storms could be as close as weather gets to being a clear example of climate change.

While flooding in the British Isles has received scant attention from the American news media, the storms are American in origin. As the Met Office explains, the same anomalies in the polar vortex that have given the Eastern U.S. such a cold winter have also caused the hurricane-like storms of the British Isles.

The thing is, as I described a few weeks ago, the snowstorms of the Eastern US are a direct result of anomalies in polar wind circulation patterns. The anomalies are, in turn, apparently caused by melting polar ice. Exactly this sort of pattern, a weakening of the polar vortex due to melting ice, was predicted years ago by climate change models.

So, climate change causes sea ice to melt, which in turn disrupts polar circulation, which causes drought and heat over Western North America and cold and wet over the East. The storms of the East in turn lead to warmth and rain and wind in Western Europe. If A causes B, and B causes C, therefore A causes C. The British Isles storms are directly caused by melting sea ice.

Except nobody has made this connection in public yet. At least, I have not been able to find any such statements, and I’ve searched diligently for two weeks now. Finding the connection between the US storms and melting polar ice caps took about twenty minutes online. Finding the connection between the US storms and the UK storms likewise took about twenty minutes online. The connection between melting arctic ice and the British storms is nowhere to be found.

In this case, the caution of the Met Office is arguably offering comfort to climate deniers, because their statements make it sound as though climate scientists don’t really know what is going on. And that’s just plain wrong.

Arctic sea ice is going to continue to melt as long as the globe continues to warm. That does not mean that a weakened polar vortex is going to be constant from here on out or that a weakened vortex will always cause the same weather patterns. Weather is complex, after all. However, if the people of the British Isles do not like being under water, they are going to have to demand real action to curb climate change at both the national and international level.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “A Flood of Evidence

  1. Pingback: Many Waters Cannot Quench | The Climate in Emergency

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