Climate change won’t be all sun and smiles for NI say experts

As Northern Ireland’s record-breaking heatwave comes to an end, a number of experts have told the News Letter that climate change will not merely involve happy bouts of summery sunshine.

A woman basking in the heat of NI's recent super-sunny spell
A woman basking in the heat of NI's recent super-sunny spell

Whilst spells of extreme Mediterranean-style weather, of the kind which graced the Province this month, are expected to become more frequent in the future, experts stress that there are also umpteen major drawbacks for both Northern Ireland’s human inhabitants and its ecosystems.

The News Letter sought the views of a string of academics, and summarises their views here.

> Dr Donal Mullan, senior lecturer in the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Extreme heat events are becoming more common due to climate change.

“No single weather event can be directly attributed to climate change alone, but we know that a warming climate increases the odds of experiencing more frequent and intense spells of hot weather.

“This is also leading to shifting rainfall patterns, with both increased dry spells and intense rainfall more likely. All of this will place considerable strain on society and the economy – ranging from increased incidences of heat-related illnesses to water shortages and flooding.

“Just how bad these extremes could become is ultimately up to us – but one thing that is for certain is that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change we will need to substantially slash our greenhouse gas emissions.”

> Dr Alan Kennedy-Asser, a specialist in summer heat extremes at the University of Bristol said: “On current projected levels of global warming, NI could be expected to have observable mortality due to extreme heat.”

A 2C increase in overall warming could bring “summer heat stress” akin to that seen now in north-west England where there were over 250 excess deaths during heatwaves in 2020.

“Although heat may be pleasant for many, it is dangerous for vulnerable groups of society,” he added.

> Dr Paul Sayers from the English firm Sayers and Associates, which specialises in managing water resources, said: “NI will experience hotter, drier summers, with greater extremes.

“Although temperatures are projected to increase in both summer and winter, warming is expected to be greatest in summer. Summer rainfall is projected to decrease, although extreme downpours will be heavier despite the overall drying trend.”

While summer rainfall may drop by perhaps 15% by the 2080s, winter rainfall could increase by 10% – but it all depends on how much greenhouse gases are curbed by.

He concluded that: “Periods of water scarcity are likely to become more prevalent under these scenarios, leading to possible implications in agriculture and industry, for example.”

> Meanwhile another Queen’s professor, John Barry (who is a former leader of NI’s Gren Party) said: “The heatwave we’ve experienced is part of the pattern of our climate-changed world, and therefore while for many people experienced as a positive and welcome bit of Mediterranean weather, is also a clear indication of accelerating climate breakdown.

“Let’s remember that this heatwave mean that the UK and Irish authorities issued their first ever heat warnings, and the same climate reasons for the heatwave are also the cause of the devastating flooding in parts of Europe and the recent and deadly ‘heat dome’ in North America.

“For Northern Ireland continuing climate breakdown will mean an increased risk of flooding (such as the flooding experienced in the north-east and Derry Strabane in 2017), storm surges and coastal wear that will put pressure on drainage and sewage infrastructure as well as threaten vulnerable roads, and sources of water alongside threatening ecosystems and habitats.

“There will also be non-physical impacts such as increased insurance premiums for vulnerable properties, infrastructure and businesses.

“The increase in temperature (both in summer and winter) as a result of global heating will increase air pollution.”

This, he added, “can bring significant problems for vulnerable individuals (such as those with respiratory problems) and also threaten species of animals and crops”.

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